Departing police chief built Richmond legacy on trust
on December 8, 2015
Editor’s note: This is Part One in a two-part series on the departure of Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus, who leaves after this month to become police chief in Tucson, Arizona. In Part Two tomorrow, staff writer Matt Beagle looks at a recent rise in Richmond homicides and the unfinished agenda facing Richmond’s next top cop.
When Chris Magnus came to Richmond in 2006, gun violence by all accounts was out of control. Many people considered Magnus an unlikely choice to do much about it.
He was hired as police chief in Richmond after nearly seven years as chief of the Fargo, North Dakota, police department. White, and openly gay, Magnus came to a city that is predominantly Latino and African American, plagued by turf wars among rival street gangs.
Richmond had suffered 38 homicides the year Magnus took charge. A total of 1,078 violent crimes and 7,090 property crimes had occurred the year before. Richmond was considered one of the 10 most crime-ridden cities in the United States, with a per capita murder rate that earned it the reputation of a Bay Area murder capital.
In Fargo, by contrast, homicides were about as common as palm trees, despite impressions to the contrary created by the popular movie that shares the city’s name, in which a local officer interrupts a killer using a wood chipper for body disposal.
Richmond’s city manager, Bill Lindsay, made the key hiring decision, recalled Mayor Tom Butt, who at the time was a member of the City Council.
Hiring Magnus was “unconventional and a bold move at the time,” Butt said.
But Magnus was hardly a rookie, either, with no relevant experience.
Before Fargo, he had been serving as a police captain in Lansing, Michigan, where violent crime was a serious problem. He had also been working to reform the Lansing police department, which had problems similar to those he would inherit in the Bay Area.
Magnus clearly had no shortage of ambition or will to succeed. He had applied for the job in Fargo only after realizing he would not rise to the position of chief in Lansing. His reform plans would have been difficult to carry out if he lacked the authority of police chief.
Now, after 10 years in Richmond, Magnus leaves to become police chief in Tucson, Arizona, touted across the country as a model of success in an extraordinarily tough job.
He presided over a dramatic improvement in police-community relations and a longterm drop in violent crime. Although the homicide numbers have begun to spike again lately, Magnus implemented sweeping changes in the Richmond police, which previously had one of the worst reputations in the Bay Area for a culture of chronic disconnect from the people officers were supposed to be protecting.
Now, Magnus leaves with a remarkable record of achievement, and considerable good will among those who have watched him the closest during his stint in Richmond.
“He has been widely recognized for his pivotal role in Richmond’s dramatic drop in crime, and he deserves it,” the mayor said.
From the start, Magnus recognized he had to overcome some skepticism. He even sounded surprised himself that Richmond had picked a white guy from Fargo—a city whose population is mainly of Scandinavian descent and 94 percent white—to tackle an urban crime problem.
“I really thought Fargo would be a disqualifier for me because of the demographics of the city…but Fargo has only been a quarter of my career,” Magnus told the San Francisco Chronicle in one of his first Bay Area interviews.
He had become known for his community policing even before he came to Richmond, which is one of the reasons he landed the job in the first place. He had adopted an “it takes a village” manner in Fargo, collaborating with all local organizations and agencies that were eager to help, including health and social services departments and nearby universities.
He took up a similar approach in Richmond, but only after a wave of personnel changes within the police department. Magnus held back several higher-ranking officers from prospective promotions, instead moving up those who were less represented in the department demographics, including Latino and female police officers.
“The Richmond PD had employed mostly African-American officers before Magnus came, and many were in leading positions. There were hardly any Latino officers to speak of,” Richmond radio host Andrés Soto recalled during an interview last week.
Seven African-American senior officers sued Magnus in 2012, claiming that he was racially biased when he denied them expected promotions. After a four-month trial, the case was dropped for lack of evidence, despite some testimony—and Magnus’ own admission—that he had made some unwise choices of words construed as betraying bias.
Magnus maintained that crimes could be solved only with support of residents, and that potential witnesses to crimes in Richmond would be willing to confide with officers only if the department represented the city’s diversity.
He also took steps to put officers closer to residents, reorganizing how beats were assigned.
Before, officers mainly kept to themselves even when patrolling, leaving the citizens wary of their presence whenever they showed up. Now, Richmond is divided into three districts—North, Central and South. Each district is divided into three patrol beats. Every officer in the department’s patrol unit is assigned to one beat, with his or her mobile phone number and email address listed on the Richmond Police website to make it easy for residents to contact the right officer.
Police work shifts also are made public so people know who would be the best person to contact at different times. This method of connecting front-line officers to Richmond citizens was implemented in 2006, garnering much public praise.
Beat officers were asked to do more than just respond to calls from citizens. Magnus expected them to reach out on their own, without waiting to be contacted. Officers’ evaluations became based largely on how much they engaged with the public and whether they were addressing people’s top-priority needs.
Observors said this made a difference in measurable ways. “The beat cops’ response time is pretty good,” Felix Hunziker, a member of the Richmond Police Commission, said last week.
Hunziker recalled things were much different during his early days in Richmond, just a few years before Magnus arrived on the scene.
“While they are now rare, helicopter noises and gunshots were heard regularly in the neighborhood when I just moved here. I wouldn’t say it’s ‘distant memory,’ but the decline has been steady and gradual (after Magnus began his term in office),” Hunziker said.
“People trust the police more now when we have the cellphone numbers of the beat cops, we wave to them in the street, they stop to chat with us and they actually know us,” he said. “Now they’re talking to us.”
The police department also began collaborations with local churches and schools, holding casual meetings with citizens over coffee and snacks. Magnus made a point to attent most of the meetings. “He’s very friendly—an outgoing, robust man,” Hunziker said.
Magnus was determined to make the police seem a friendly source of help to the law-abiding people of Richmond, and that determination came with something that was fresh to the city: he bought a house in Richmond and moved in, something his predecessors had not done, as they had lived away from the city and commuted every day.
“He came in like a storm … that was a first,” Bennie Singleton, a Richmond native, told USA Today in a long profile of Magnus published shortly before he announced his move to Tucson.
His quest to bond with people included some controversial moves other officers and government officials avoided. Most notably, Magnus made national news when he was photographed in uniform holding up a “Black Lives Matter” sign during a peaceful protest following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last year.
One of the protestors had asked the chief to hold up the sign. Despite complaints that it’s improper—and possibly illegal—for police to engage in political activity in uniform, Magnus said he had no regrets, and would do it again if presented with the same circumstances. He said the gesture was intended out of respect, rather than to make a political point.
He said the fact that a protestor had handed him the sign indicated that his efforts to build productive relationships had not been in vain: the Richmond Police had established a level of trust, he said, enough to make someone comfortable enough to ask the police chief to stand for racial justice alongside them.
Magnus will be replacing incumbent Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor at the end of the year, when Villaseñor plans to retire. Magnus’ husband, Terrance Cheung, will be moving with him to Tucson, leaving a gaping hole in Richmond’s circle of leading figures. Cheung now serves as the chief of staff to Mayor Butt.
Dubbed “the city’s power couple,” Magnus and Cheung were married in a private ceremony in nearby Berkeley last year, making Magnus reportedly the first openly gay male police chief in the country to be married.
“Richmond is sad to see both of them depart,” Butt said, who praised Magnus for having changed the culture of the police department. “He’s made it a different and better one, and he has left behind a good bench. We’ll be okay.”
Many people are concerned, however, about what comes next for Richmond policing. A sharp jump in homicides has occurred during the past few weeks, and most of the recent killings are unsolved.
“We’re not done here yet. I think it’s disappointing that he’s taking the job, there’s so much we still need to work on,” Hunziker said.
Janis Mara, who has lived in Richmond 15 years, called for city officials to promote someone from within the department, to help ensure the positive changes continue.
“I can attest to how dramatically things changed from an often adversarial relationship with the police to an outstanding one. I hope the new chief is promoted from within so we get someone who reflects Magnus’ values,” Mara said.
Assistant Chief Allwyn Brown is considered most likely to be stepping into Magnus’ shoes as the interim chief. Magnus has made few comments about his legacy or his successor, but during a news conference paid tribute to the team now left in charge.
His top ranking Richmond colleagues returned the compliments—a marked change in tone from the early days of internal dissent and battles with the police union.
Richmond Police Capt. Mark Gagan said it was no surprise Magnus wound up the top pick in Tucson after finalists were named. Gagan has worked in Richmond for 21 years, and seen four interim chiefs and three fulltime chiefs come and go.
“All had their unique style and the ability to lead, but Chief Magnus knew that one would need to have community relations and the willingness to be accessible to community needs when he came to this job,” Gagan said.
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