Crime - Sacto 911

He said blacks did better before civil rights – now former sheriff is leaving bias inquiry

Former sheriff says 'trends for African Americans ... looked better' before major civil rights laws of 1960s

Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness stepped away from a Picnic Day investigation in Davis amid controversy over comments he made on his radio show about blacks. He elaborated on his position in an interview with The Sacramento Bee.
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Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness stepped away from a Picnic Day investigation in Davis amid controversy over comments he made on his radio show about blacks. He elaborated on his position in an interview with The Sacramento Bee.

John McGinness, the former Sacramento sheriff turned radio host, said he’s stepping down from an inquiry into Davis’ Picnic Day melee after his on-air comments about African-Americans prompted a call for his ouster.

The April brawl between three plainclothes Davis officers and a mob of campus revelers ended with two injured policemen and three arrests. Different versions of events emerged, with at least one witness saying the cops started the fight.

McGinness was hired as an outsider to look into claims that included excessive force and racial bias. The three men arrested, ages 19 to 22, were black.

Then, on Friday, the former sheriff told his radio audience on KFBK that African-Americans did “much, much, much, much better before” the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation and discrimination based on race.

The comment sparked outrage. And on Monday, McGinness said he was taking the “simple solution” and stepping away from the investigation so he wouldn’t be a distraction.

McGinness had been tasked with looking at the law enforcement response to an April 22 Picnic Day disturbance.

Picnic Day, an annual campus open house event at the University of California, Davis, has become known in recent years for violence and drunken mayhem, mainly on the streets of the usually sleepy college town.

On this year’s Picnic Day, one incident suddenly spun out of control when three plainclothes officers, riding in an unmarked gray minivan, pulled close to a large group of people dancing in the street and told them to move back onto the sidewalk.

Words were exchanged, and the officers who exited the van were soon engaged in in a physical altercation with a number of revelers.

Who started the fight remains in question.

The Davis Police Department took the unusual step of hiring McGinness earlier this month. During a May 9 press conference, Davis police Chief Darren Pytel spoke highly of McGinness’ experience as an investigator and administrator.

McGinness was Sacramento County sheriff from 2006 to 2010. He now hosts an afternoon radio talk show on KFBK.

During Friday’s show, McGinness said U.S. Census Bureau statistics showed African-Americans fared better in terms of income, graduation rates and intact families prior to the passage of the landmark federal Civil Rights Act.

The law sought to end segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It was one of the hallmarks of the civil rights movement.

“If you look at certain groups within our broad population – for example, African-Americans – in this country did much, much, much, much better before the Civil Rights Act. Yeah, believe it or not they did,” McGinness said during his May 12 program.

He went on to say slavery was indefensible, calling it a horrific period in our history. But McGinness was critical of efforts to prop up one race of people.

“Economic growth, intact families, children being raised by both parents, completion of education, at least through high school,” he said. “Those statistical data were better before the Civil Rights Act.”

“I read it right off the census data,” McGinness told The Bee on Monday. “This was a side topic. It was not a program on the Civil Rights Act at all.”

One caller took issue with McGinness’ inference before the host changed the subject, and, later, Davis City Councilman Will Arnold called for McGinness to step away from the Picnic Day inquiry.

“The comments that he made on his radio show revealed an ignorance to the plight of African-Americans in our country,” Arnold said in an interview with The Bee. “It sounded to me like he was saying African-Americans had it better prior to the civil rights (movement) and that is an inconceivably ignorant statement.”

He said he was troubled that someone working for the city of Davis, a generally liberal college town, thought this way. He said he was pleased McGinness would no longer be part of the investigation.

Stepping away was the “right thing to do,” McGinness said. “That kind of issue can be a distraction.”

He said he wasn’t ready to reach any conclusions but said he’d seen “nothing that seems improper” in how police handled the Picnic Day situation. He said it would have been harder to walk away if there had been evidence of wrongdoing.

“I want this to get done and done right,” McGinness said.

Three men were arrested following an attack on Davis police officers who encountered a group of people blocking traffic on a busy roadway during Picnic Day at UC Davis.

Ed Fletcher: 916-321-1269, @NewsFletch

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