Closing arguments are just about wrapped up in the three-month civil trial in which seven black police officers claim they were victims of harassment and discrimination. In their arguments, attorneys presented stark opposing views of Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus as either a reformer who increased department diversity and reduced crime through progressive community policing or an insidious and despicable racist who inflicted cruelty and brutishness on seven black command staffers who are among the highest paid and highest ranking officers in the department.
Attorney Stephen Jaffe, who represents six of the black officers, asked the jury to award his clients $18 million for being subjected to what he described as years of “cruel and unjust hardship.” Jaffe told the jurors that each of his clients should be awarded $1.5 million for emotional suffering and another $1.5 million for denied promotions and various, unspecified costs. “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.”
But attorneys representing Magnus, now retired Deputy Chief Lori Ritter, and the City of Richmond had a different take on the seven plaintiffs. The defendants’ lawyers told the jury the seven plaintiffs were a cabal of self-interested command staffers who were upset that Magnus had abolished the buddy system that had facilitated their rise to the highest positions in the police department through intimidation, race baiting tactics and backroom deal-making. Defense attorney Arthur Hartinger told the jury the plaintiffs’ goal was to get Magnus fired and derail his efforts to reform the troubled department.
Hartinger said the plaintiffs actively obstructed Magnus’ efforts to diversify police ranks in order to gin-up evidence for their multimillion-dollar lawsuit. Hartinger described one instance in which plaintiff Lieutenant Arnold Threets went into an interview to remove a black officer who was applying for an assignment to the coveted Investigative Services Unit. “Lieutenant Threets went in and pulled a black officer out of the interview process because that would hurt their case if diversity actually happened,” Hartinger told the jury. “The statistics in every category show that Chief Magnus has been dedicated to diversifying the department. He has promoted more women and minorities than any other chief before him.”
Closing arguments began on Tuesday and are expected to conclude before the end of the week at which time the jury will begin deliberating three months of trial testimony and document evidence. The jury’s verdict, according to the defense attorneys, will likely determine whether the Richmond Police Department will be able to move forward under Magnus’ reforms, with increased diversity, greater openness, and more officer accountability or whether the department will be thrown back into a dysfunctional system of fractured divisions headed up by Machiavellian despots who govern promotions, beat assignments, and investigations according to their self-interest rather than the community benefit. “The community is standing behind the chief who had done great things for the city,” Hartinger said and asked the jury to “stand with the community and stand with the chief .”
Attorneys for both sides repeatedly thanked the jury for the months of time they put in. But the opposing attorneys asked the jury to consider the case in two different ways. Jaffe asked the jury to not pay too much attention to nuance and evoked a simplified version of the controversial and complex philosophy known as Occam’s Razor, which is often summarized by the principal “other things being equal, a simpler explanation is better than a complex one.” Jaffe asked the jurors to not be distracted by complexities or too much detail about things that were not relevant to the case. “Things are as they appear to be,” Jaffe said. “The defense wants you to think it’s a zebra when it’s a horse.”
Defense attorneys, on the other hand, asked the jurors to closely examine the evidence because the plaintiff s’ case has been built mostly on hearsay, secondhand information, and distortions of events and conversations. “You have to go through the evidence rigorously, it’s your vote and you have to live with it,” Hartinger said. “Evaluate all of the evidence and send a message that this case is not right. There was no discrimination.”
Jaffe recounted for the jury the significant claims against Magnus and Ritter. Among them was an incident that occurred during a 2006 car ride to San Francisco, Magnus asked Threets to imagine Ritter dressed in leather asking him to “dance, jigaboo, dance.” Magnus is then alleged to have cracked a fake whip over Threets’s head. On the stand, Threets testified that Magnus did not use the word “Jigaboo,” though he said the comment was no less insulting. Jaffe told the jurors that it made no difference whether the racial slur was used and that the imagery Magnus used was just as ugly as if he had. Jaffe also recounted an incident in which Magnus asked during a meeting “what’s Juneteenth, a holiday for shooting people?” And another time during a 2006 retreat in Napa Magnus said he is “more comfortable with people who look like me and act like me.”
Hartinger countered that when Magnus made the Juneteenth comment in May, 2006, he had never heard of the holiday before, which Hartinger said is not so unusual because only one of the plaintiffs, Johan Simon, knew anything about Juneteenth. The other six plaintiffs did not know the date of the holiday or even that it commemorates the day in 1865 when Texas announced the abolishment of slavery. He also said it was ironic that Magnus has participated in every Juneteenth parade since he’s been chief, a claim that none of the plaintiffs can make.
Hartinger told the jury that by the time of the 2006 Napa retreat, the plaintiffs had secretly decided to file a lawsuit and had already hired an attorney. When they arrived at the retreat, Hartinger said they were looking to bolster their lawsuit by baiting the chief and attacking Ritter, the first woman to be promoted to deputy chief in the Richmond Police Department, for the “perception” that she was a racist. “Lori Ritter was subjected to a vicious attack. They came up with the accusation that she has the perception of being racist,” Hartinger said. “The attacks were unquantifiable, general, nothing specific, just that there was a perception. How do you respond to that?”
In Ritter’s defense, her attorneys submitted a performance evaluation by former acting Police Chief Terry Hudson, who is African American, in which he gave Ritter high praise for the quality of her work. The evaluation includes a sentence that reads “What I admire about you is that you can work with people of different ethnicities and backgrounds.” Hartinger also reminded the jury how the plaintiffs attacked retired Lieutenant Enos Johnson, who is black and a close friend of Ritter’s who was the best man at her wedding. The plaintiffs accused Johnson of not being authentically black and that he did not self-identify as black. In fact, to disprove the plaintiffs’ claims, Johnson, who is clearly African American, was required to submit his birth certificate to the court as evidence he is African American. Hartinger also reminded the jury that plaintiff Lieutenant Cleveland Brown was upset that a woman had been promoted to deputy chief. At one point, Brown said to Magnus “you can’t have a white woman supervising four black officers.”
Brown’s attorney, Jonathon Matthews, said that the City of Richmond is responsible because it did not step in and stop his clients suffering. “While the Richmond Police Department was figuratively burning down because of racial divisions, the city simply watched,” Matthews said.
But the Richmond Police Department has not burned down. In fact, defense attorneys said, just the opposite is true. Magnus has reduced crime, effectively instituted community-policing programs, and reformed a department that was considered one of the most troubled in the Bay Area.