Defense begins closing arguments in Richmond police discrimination trial

Pictured from left: Attorney Geoffrey Spellberg, RPD Deputy Chief Allwyn Brown, Chief Chris Magnus and Arthur Hartinger exiting court Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Robert Rogers.

Pictured from left: Attorney Geoffrey Spellberg, RPD Deputy Chief Allwyn Brown, Chief Chris Magnus and Arthur Hartinger exiting court Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Robert Rogers.

Defense attorneys Arthur A. Hartinger and Geoffrey Spellberg, representing Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus, began their closing arguments on Wednesday morning in the discrimination suit filed by seven police officers against the chief and the city. The courtroom was packed to capacity with observers, including the families of the plaintiffs as well as police officers and local council members.

In 2007, eight high-ranking African American police officers sued the city of Richmond, accusing Magnus and former deputy chief Lori Ritter of racial discrimination through blocking the advancement of black officers, making racist jokes and retaliating against them for drawing attention to racial tensions in the department. Several of the plaintiffs alleged that they had been blocked from joining the department’s Investigative Services Division (ISD) through an unfair selection process. The attorneys representing the city have argued that the complaints stem from an effort to undermine Magnus, who had recently become the chief. The plaintiffs are Capt. Eugene McBride, Lts. Johan Simon, Shawn Pickett, Cleveland Brown, Michael Booker and Arnold Threets, and Sgt. James Jenkins

In his closing remarks, Hartinger argued that the plaintiffs did not prove their case, that their evidence was not credible and does not demonstrate racial intent on the part of the chief, and that the plaintiffs conspired to get the chief fired. He also said the plaintiffs were silent about the alleged offending conduct until they could surprise the city with the lawsuit.

“Comparing the Investigative Services Division process to Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks not giving up her seat on the bus … it’s ridiculous!” said Hartinger in response to plaintiffs’ claim that Magnus wanted fewer African Americans in the department. “We have a right to defend ourselves against meritless charges.”

Throughout the trial, the defense attorneys have sought to show that the plaintiffs tried to undermine Magnus from the start of his tenure. In his closing remarks, Hartinger referred to plaintiff Lt. Arnold Threets’ testimony in which he said that Magnus was “unfit” from day one of his start as police chief.

Hartinger referred to a graph from a Richmond Police Department crime and analysis report that showed violent crimes in Richmond in declined from 2005-2011. Last year showed the lowest number of reported violent crimes—724—compared to 2005’s 1,175 reported violent crimes. He argued that the plaintiffs were more focused on winning the case for a big pay day rather than attempting to actually make positive changes for the police department.

Spellberg began his closing arguments by refuting specific claims from the plaintiffs’ testimonies, including allegations of racist behavior by Ritter during a departmental retreat to Napa in 2006. He mentioned that Ritter was the first woman hired to the deputy chief position and that her evaluation reflected her ability to work well with others in the department. “Diversity does not equal black; it’s more than that,” said Spellberg.

Spellberg also argued that the plaintiffs were already preparing their case before the Napa retreat.

Spellberg then focused his attention on Lt. Michael Booker, reminding the jury they should decide their verdict based on actual accounts of racial harassment and discrimination rather than accusations. Booker claimed in the suit that opportunities were denied to him, and that he was the subject of racial harassment and severe and pervasive misconduct. Spellberg cited an interrogatory report from Booker in which he stated “no” when asked if he was subject to any adverse employment actions.

Lt. Brown claims he was also denied training opportunities, was threatened by Magnus during the Napa retreat, and failed to provide him with performance evaluations. Brown alleged that he was denigrated in the eyes of his peers by being accused of taking the chief’s car in January 2006, was the subject of a false or malicious employment evaluation, and deprived of compensation by not being evaluated on a timely basis in June 2006.

“The chief got mad during the retreat and snapped on his staff, but no one was targeted in particular,” said Spellberg. “There was calculated insubordination from plaintiffs at the Napa retreat and doesn’t constitute as adverse employment actions.”

Spellberg said that there is no foundation for the employment evaluation argument, stating that none of the plaintiffs had tried to find employment anywhere else during that time, when an updated evaluation report would have been necessary for potential employers. Brown had complained that the slow promotion process was affecting his livelihood. But with annual wages of over $165,000, Brown didn’t lose any money during the two months it took for his promotion to captain to go into effect, Spellberg argued.

“If there’s racism anywhere, it’s on the plaintiffs’ side,” said Spellberg.

The defense attorneys are expected to finish their closing arguments Thursday.

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