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Richmond police department discrimination suit goes to the jury

on April 6, 2012

Following three months of courtroom battles, and five years after seven high-ranking African American Richmond police officers first filed a discrimination lawsuit against the city, Police Chief Chris Magnus, and former Deputy Chief Lori Ritter, arguments have come to a close. All that’s left is for the jury to reach a verdict.

The plaintiffs are Captain Eugene McBride, Lieutenants Johan Simon, Shawn Pickett, Cleveland Brown, Michael Booker and Arnold Threets, and Sergeant James Jenkins. They are each asking for $3 million in damages because they claim that they were subjected to racism and barred from advancement within the department after Magnus and Ritter assumed their positions in 2006.

On Thursday, attorney Geoffrey Spellberg continued the defense’s closing arguments. Spellberg rehashed points against the plaintiffs’ claims of racial discrimination by Magnus and Ritter, including claims that they had blocked the advancement of black officers, made racist jokes and retaliated against them for drawing attention to racial tensions within the department.

Spellberg downplayed many of the plaintiffs’ allegations of racial bias, saying that Magnus and Ritter offered harsh but constructive criticism, none of which were racially charged. “Chief Magnus gives an honest evaluation and he’s sued for being a racist,” Spellberg said.

Officers had also been exposed to much worse than Magnus’s harsh evaluations or flippant comments, said Spellberg. “It’s a tough job,” he said. “This was nothing to officers who’ve seen tough stuff on the city’s streets.”

Spellberg was particularly animated when he turned to the claims of Lt. Arnold Threets and especially what he called “the most concerning allegation in this whole case.” Spellberg was referring to an alleged incident in which Threets, Magnus and Ritter were driving together to San Francisco, and Magnus allegedly turned to Threets and told him a joke about Ritter in thigh-high boots saying “Dance, jigaboo, dance.”

“If [Magnus] had said it, it would be racist,” said Spellberg. But, Spellberg said, this one “troubling allegation” after all these years comes down to “he said, she said.” Regarding the other claims of racist commentary or joking that have been brought up in trial, Spellberg dismissed them as distasteful or flippant but not racist.

In order to rebut claims that the plaintiffs were economically disadvantaged by not being promoted to certain positions, Spellberg showed the 2011 W2s for each of the plaintiffs to highlight their incomes—averaging about $185,000—over the past year. The plaintiffs, he said, have “really good salaries. They aren’t individuals that can’t work.”

“These are not men who are suffering financially. They may not like Chief Magnus or the direction the department is going, but they are not suffering financially,” said Spellberg.

Spellberg argued that the lawsuit was not about racism but resistance to change by the plaintiffs. Chief Magnus—white, gay and from the Midwest—came to Richmond as an outsider and quickly reshaped the department to fit a stronger community-policing model.

Spellberg ended his closing arguments by saying he’d be the last person to marginalize the civil rights laws of the state. “It’s an ugly chapter that’s not closed,” he said. “But that’s not our case, that’s not what happened here.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Stephen Jaffe next took the floor and lightened the mood. “Hi folks. I’m tired of hearing people talk, and myself talk,” he said. He promised to be brief as jurors nodded and looked relieved. The jury has been listening to the case since early January.

Jaffe criticized the defense lawyers for both their demeanor and appearance, saying that their anger, arrogance, hubris, and mean-spiritedness was reflective of the spirit of the people they are representing. “This case has nothing to do with how much money the plaintiffs make,” Jaffe said. “Under the law, salary is irrelevant. But it’s to distract you and make you feel they are undeserving of anything.”

Jaffe praised the over 200 combined years of service of the seven plaintiffs, whom he warmly referred to as his brothers. He refuted the defense’s notion that the plaintiffs were involved in a grand conspiracy together to take down the chief. “These guys didn’t even like each other when we started out,” he said.

Disputing Spellberg’s argument that the plaintiffs had seen much worse, Jaffe insisted Spellberg was confusing two different kinds of threats. “How could tough cops who’ve seen murders and rapes be threatened by words?” Jaffe asked. Because that person—Chief Magnus—had control over their careers and could make their lives “a living hell,” Jaffe said referring to a contentious comment made by Magnus at a police management retreat to Napa in late 2006.

Jonathan Mathews, attorney for plaintiff Lt. Cleveland Brown, followed Jaffe in criticizing the defense attorneys for “spinning a web of half truths and misinformation.”

Mathews appealed to the jury to rule in favor of his client and the other plaintiffs. “All of them will have to live with this for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Judge Barry P. Goode, gave final instructions to the jury and released them to deliberate.

As the seven plaintiffs got to their feet to leave the courtroom, they started shaking hands and hugging each other. “It’s been a long…” Threets sighed to a fellow plaintiff, his voice trailing off.

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