Plaintiffs ask for millions in damages in closing arguments of Richmond Police discrimination suit
on April 4, 2012
The attorney for six of the seven plaintiffs in the discrimination lawsuit against the city, Police Chief Chris Magnus and former Deputy Chief Lori Ritter said his clients should be awarded about $1.5 million each for the emotional toll of enduring six-plus years of alleged discrimination and a hostile work environment. But the total should be larger, around $3 million each, argued plaintiffs’ attorney Stephen Jaffe, when economic damages from stalled promotions and punitive costs are factored in.
Jaffe on Tuesday delivered the first round of closing arguments in the trial, which started in early January. Jonathan Matthews, attorney for plaintiff Lt. Cleveland Brown, began his closing arguments late Tuesday.
Seven high-ranking African American police officials are suing for alleged discrimination and retaliatory actions in 2006-7, soon after Magnus was tapped to lead the department. Magnus and Ritter, both of whom are white, are accused of making racist comments and conspiring to stall the promotions of African American officers. Top city administrators were negligent in allowing the discrimination to occur, according to the plaintiffs.
Defense attorneys, expected to make their own closing arguments Wednesday, have argued that the plaintiffs conspired to undermine Magnus and smear Ritter in a calculated bid to wrest control of the department and hit the city for a big pay day.
The plaintiffs are Capt. Eugene McBride, Lts. Johan Simon, Shawn Pickett, Brown, Michael Booker and Arnold Threets, and Sgt. James Jenkins.
Jaffe’s closing remarks summarized a series of exchanges between the plaintiffs and defendants, mostly in 2006-7, and other personnel decisions that he said make it clear that his clients were subjected to discrimination and retaliation.
“Power is often a companion of arrogance, hubris, and a sense of invulnerability, and that is exactly what happened here,” Jaffe said. “This is a case about race discrimination and a hostile work environment … and the failure of the city to prevent it.”
Jaffe, colorful in his courtroom demeanor throughout the trial, punctuated his closing arguments with pitched intonations, bombastic accusations and quotes from philosophers spanning the millennia, including William of Ockham, Henry Thoreau to Edmund Burke. He likened his veteran law enforcement clients to civil rights activists and said they were oppressed by actions that ranged from “inappropriate” to “despicable and vile.”
“These six men have put their careers and their lives on the line in order to come into this courtroom in order to stand up for what’s right,” Jaffe said. “They want [the defendants] held accountable, not only for themselves but for every other African American police officer in the Richmond Police Department and anywhere else.”
Jaffe opened by reintroducing his clients, all wearing business suits and seated in the second row, to the jury. Each man stood when called by Jaffe. The courtroom chambers were packed to near capacity with observers, including several police officials, trial witnesses, and heads of other major city departments.
Jaffe said Magnus, who was hired by City Manager Bill Lindsay from the police department in Fargo, N.D., wasted no time in aligning himself with Ritter, whom the plaintiffs allege had a reputation for being a racist and connected to the Richmond “Cowboys,” a clique of white officers who were at the heart of a discrimination suit that rocked the city in the early 1980s.
Jaffe said the defense’s case was built on red herrings, including assertions that his clients were resistant to Magnus’ progressive policing model, miffed by unearned praise the chief enjoyed after a “cooked-up” crime decline and determined to topple him after he attempted to reform promotional practices dictated by alliances rather than merit.
The defense’s claims are all a ruse to distract from clear evidence that Magnus and Ritter made racially-motivated decisions and uttered racial digs, then retaliated against his clients, Jaffe said.
“Things are usually exactly what they appear to be,” Jaffe said. “The defense wants you to think everything is misunderstood, not heard correctly, out of context and not what it appeared to be.”
Jaffe took significant time recounting the specific allegations of each of his clients.
Booker, for instance, said he was unfairly stripped of a coveted patrol assignment, was transferred against his will, and not provided his own office, customary for lieutenants. Simon said he was humiliated by a series of disciplinary measures imposed by Magnus and Ritter—and allegedly countenanced by Lindsay and city Human Resources Director Leslie Knight—after he was accused of sexual harassment by an officer, Ken Greco, whom Jaffe said Ritter used as a “tool” and “patsy” to retaliate against Simon for suing the department. (Simon was cleared of wrongdoing in at least three investigations Magnus initiated into his conduct.)
But most of the issues were common to all the plaintiffs, Jaffe said, and happened in 2006 and early 2007. Among the claims are that Magnus joked about “Driving Miss Daisy,” called Brown a “jigaboo” while relating a joke to Threets, and told colleagues he didn’t want a “blackout” in the Investigative Services Division, which Jaffe said was a reference to limiting African Americans in that division. At a police management retreat in Napa in September 2006, a heated argument broke out between Magnus and several of the plaintiffs, an exchange that included four direct threats to his clients, Jaffe said.
After Magnus changed the rules for applicants for Investigative Services Division (ISD) promotions, disregarding the wishes of Pickett—whom he had tapped to run the division—the plaintiffs withdrew from the process and influenced others to do the same. The plaintiffs claim Magnus wanted fewer African Americans in the ISD.
“Did they boycott?” Jaffe said. “You’re darn right they did! They reached the point where they refused to walk to the back of the bus anymore.”
Jaffe also looked to discredit Capt. Mark Gagan, who sat in the audience wearing his police uniform. Gagan, a key defense witness, shed new light on the case during two days of testimony late in the trial. Gagan testified that Pickett threatened him on several occasions, and that the plaintiffs had schemed in secret with attorneys to depose Magnus and orchestrate encounters that they could later use in court. Pickett later re-took the stand to deny Gagan’s accounts.
“Gagan is a bona fide Chief Magnus cheerleader, and he was profoundly infatuated with Lori Ritter … he virtually worships her,” Jaffe said. Gagan, he said, “told a series of lies during a delusional, emotional meltdown on the stand.”
Matthews, who represents Brown, opened his closing arguments late Tuesday. Matthews focused on Brown’s 30-plus year history in the department, rising from the ranks of aide to captain and earning good reviews from a half-dozen chiefs along the way.
But his career trajectory coincided with that of Ritter, who had emerged as his rival and tormenter, according to Matthews. When Magnus arrived, Brown warned him that Ritter was perceived to be a racist, while Ritter told Magnus that Brown was a “gang member” whose record was tarnished with misconduct and whose influence over younger officers should be marginalized.
Magnus disregarded the concerns about Ritter, but looked close into the background of Brown, Matthews said. “Magnus and Ritter sullied and ruined a career that took almost 34 years to build,” Matthews said. “And the city failed to prevent it.”
The defense has argued that the plaintiffs’ allegations are either outright lies or twisted interpretations drummed up to bolster their chances at winning a multimillion-dollar judgment against the city.
Defense attorneys are expected to begin their closing arguments Wednesday.
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