Richmond’s Chris Magnus, perhaps the most progressive police chief in the Bay Area, took the stand this week to respond publicly about accusations that he instituted racial discriminatory policies that obstructed the promotion of seven of the highest ranking and highest paid black officers in his department. Under tough questioning from plaintiffs’ attorney Stephen Jaffe, Magnus answered questions about his knowledge of Junetenth, his promotion of a white female to assistant chief, and his plans to reform flawed department policies.
Magnus described his accusers as highly resistant to change during his first year in the department and said they repeatedly tried to undermine his authority, particularly one of the plaintiffs, then Captain Cleveland Brown, whom Magnus said challenged him at every opportunity. “Captain Brown set himself up to be devil’s advocate to whatever I was proposing,” Magnus testified. “I felt Captain Brown was challenging me as chief. I felt disrespected and sniped at.”
Magnus said that on one occasion Brown told him that “we are able to run the department” and Magnus should just worry about community relations. Brown also told Magnus that captains had earned the right not to work. “I told him that I have a number of changes planned and that captains will be expected to do more work, not less,” Magnus said.
Magnus said tensions finally overflowed during a 2007 retreat in Napa at which Lieutenant Arnold Threets and Brown became strident and attempted to highjack a meeting in which departmental communication problems, including racial tensions, were being discussed with the goal of bringing more unity to the command staff. “They tried to make the meeting as hostile and confrontational as possible when I wanted to have more of a dialogue,” Magnus said.
Brown admitted in earlier testimony that he thought Magnus’ new requirement for greater officer accountability was a problem. In 2007, when Brown was in charge of public safety and emergency preparedness for the West Contra Costa School Unified District, he took an unauthorized trip at taxpayers’ expense to Las Vegas, where he owns two of his three homes, to attend a public safety trade show. When he returned a week later, he thought it was unreasonable that Magnus asked him to write a report about what he had learned at the week-long trade show and whether there were any products that might benefit the school district.
In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs contend Magnus created a discriminatory atmosphere by making racial jokes, giving poor performance reviews and giving certain black officers undesirable assignments.
But Magnus’ defense team that the seven officers filed the suit because they resented Magnus’ efforts to reform a troubled department and are seeking to exploit laws designed to protect employees from biased power structures.
In fact, Magnus has promoted more women and people of color, including two of the plaintiffs, than any of his predecessors, according to a study conducted by the West County Times.
The fact that Magnus is openly gay, has not been an official part of the defense, but the plaintiffs are clearly uncomfortable with Magnus’ longtime partner Terrence Cheung, who is Asian. According to court records, the plaintiffs’ made a motion to have Cheung banned from the courtroom during the trial on the grounds that his presence would be “intimidating.” The judged denied the motion.
Asked about a quip he made during a public safety meeting about Juneteenth in which Magnus asked “is that a holiday for shooting people?” Magnus said he had never heard of the holiday before and that he made the comment in the context of discussing safety measures for a series of public celebrations including New Year’s Eve, Cinco Di Mayo, and the Fourth of July, which in Richmond have all been marred by violence and gunfire. Magnus said he was unaware at the time that his comment was insensitive and that he had no idea anyone was offended until the lawsuit was filed. “If anybody would have told me at the time it was offensive, I would have absolutely apologized at the time,” Magnus said. “My intention is to never offend anybody about something like that.”
But for most of the morning Jaffe asked Magnus about his promotion of Lori Ritter to assistant chief. Ritter, who is white, is also named in the plaintiffs’ suit. Magnus said that shortly after he came to Richmond in 2006 that people had suggested to him that Ritter was racist because a family member of hers is alleged to have had a racist history. Jaffe asked whether Magnus investigated those claims before promoting her to assistant chief. Magnus said he thoroughly researched Ritter’s personnel file, which included a glowing evaluation from former Chief Terri Hudson, who is black. He also said that he received positive feedback about Ritter from a wide segment of the community, which included several members of the black clergy.
Jaffe asked Magnus if he ever asked anyone outright if Ritter was a racist or if he went to the city’s police commission with the allegations. Magnus said he did not because the claim was vague and unsupported. He said it would have been “vaguely like McCarthyism” to ask such a direct question about Ritter without substantiation. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to walk around and ask if a member of my command staff is racist.”
Jaffe’s questioning was decidedly hostile and the judge had to remind Jaffe at times to allow Magnus to fully answer his questions.