KQED’s Nina Thorsen talked today to reporter Kevin Fagan about the discrimination lawsuit brought by seven African American commanding officers against Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus. The officers claim that Magnus passed them over for promotion because of racial bias.

Fagan has been covering the trial for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Edited transcript of the interview:

Kevin Fagan

Chief Magnus was from Fargo North Dakota. He had the nickname there of “Mr. Diversity.” He’d been there for several years and been a cop for 20 years before that just across the border in Minnesota.

He was known as a guy who liked to be a conciliator of his staff, and a proponent of community policing.

When Richmond went looking for a police chief, they wanted to take another stab at community policing. They’d had a chief who’d come over from Oakland years before who’d tried it to mixed success. But the city had such engrained problems with violent crime and poverty that city leaders really thought community policing was the way to go.

Magnus is white and he’s gay, and he’s from Dakota. So when he shows up there apparently were some culture clashes. There was an engrained culture at the department. But he wants to put his own stamp on things, and there was some resistance. And, depending on which side is talking, there were racist eruptions in conversation and work conduct.

It’s a little tough to read into what documentation exists in this case. There are a bunch of emails and memos that when you look at them, you can take them a couple of different ways. It’s a tricky one, because there’s some outrageous allegations that make both sides look pretty bad. There’s an accusation that Magnus made some callous crack abut Juneteenth, for instance, when he said “isn’t that a day where people shoot each other?” He says the crack was made in the context of talking about holidays during which violence had occurred.

What you often see in a race-related trial is that you’re reading between the lines a lot, unless there is something overt like a racial epithet. That doesn’t seem to be the case here; no one called anyone the N word. There was an accusation early on that the word ‘jigaboo’ was used, but that has been denied. So we’re left with a lot of he said/she said.

The plaintiffs are asking for monetary relief and something in the way of promotions they think are due. There are seven black commanding officers who are suing, each of them has been there a long time, and they thought they were passed over for racist reasons.

When Chief Magnus first arrived in 2006, after a few months he promoted the only white female on the staff and a Latino man to deputy chief. In a heavily black city like Richmond, the plaintiffs say, you should have some black representation in your top command. The chief says he just wanted the most qualified people and that he was promoting diversity by having a woman and a Latino as his second in command.

The chief also says there are people in the department who were resistant to change. He described a staff retreat he held that sounded pretty bad, with everyone yelling at each other. A white officer got up and said whites are discriminated against, a black officer said blacks are discriminated against. The chief says that some of his command said ‘we’re not going to change, you can come in and try to change the game all you want, but we know how we do things here in Richmond and that’s that.’ The other side says this guy comes in from outside and wants to change what we do here, what does he know? Not a happy sounding situation.

More coverage here…

Richmond Racial Bias Trial Pits Police Chief vs. Black Officers 10 April,2012Jon Brooks

  • Anonymous

    Wow, doesn’t anyone remember why they chose this profession?  Don’t the words they repeated in their oath of office have any meaning?

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