Top Cop

As police chief of gritty Richmond, California, Chris Magnus embraced Black Lives Matter, all but eliminated fatal shootings by police, and cut the homicide rate in half.

In my nearly fifty years of picketing and protesting for one cause or another, I’ve learned that brushes with police officers, much less their bosses, may not end well. So my first encounter, three years ago, with one of America’s most successful police chiefs was a novel experience. Then fifty-one-year-old Chris Magnus, a fair-haired midwesterner fond of quoting Robert Peel, was mixing with “the public” in Richmond, California, a blue-collar city of 110,000 across the bay from San Francisco.

Several thousand of us had just marched to the front gate of our local Chevron refinery, in Richmond’s largest environmental protest ever. Magnus was circulating around with no visible sign of rank or authority. He was hatless and wearing blue jeans and a windbreaker with a small, barely noticeable Richmond Police Department (RPD) logo on it. When he approached a small group of us, we were discussing the large turnout. As if already attuned to the topic of our conversation, he stopped and declared, “Isn’t this a terrific crowd? What a great day for our city!”

In America today, due to the alarming spread of police misconduct or counter-violence, many police chiefs—and their cities—are having more bad days than great (or even good) ones. And local law enforcement leaders don’t tend to be very complimentary about protest activity, even when it’s not directed at them. As the New York Times reports, fatal shootings and other civilian abuse cases have “radically changed their work—making jobs more difficult, far more political and much less secure. Being fired by a mayor on live television now comes with the territory.” Ronal Serpas, a former chief in two southern cities, told the Times, “It isn’t a 20-year career to be chief of Baltimore or Chicago or New Orleans. We know we are on a four- to five-year lifeline.”

Chris Magnus’s tenure in Richmond lasted twice that long. By the time Magnus left last year, under his own steam, to become chief in Tucson, Arizona, he had greatly improved public safety by repairing relations with a majority-minority community long estranged from the police. Between 2009 and 2014, killings in Richmond—often gang related—declined five years in a row. Violent crime in general was 23 percent lower, and property crime fell by 40 percent during that period. By the end of 2015, the city’s homicide rate was 50 percent lower than a decade earlier.

Search committee members wondered how Magnus, then police chief of Fargo, North Dakota, would fare in largely nonwhite Richmond, whose homicide rate in 2005–06 made it one of the most dangerous cities in the United States per capita.

Unlike colleagues elsewhere, Magnus was able to overcome union and political opposition, from inside and outside the department. He never lost the backing of municipal officials, community leaders, or even progressive activists with little past fondness for cops. And he did all this while serving as one of the nation’s few gay police chiefs—and the first to ever participate in a Black Lives Matter protest.

The story of Chris Magnus and Richmond’s remarkable public safety turnaround is both inspiring and instructive. As a rare case study in successful public safety reform, the RPD, under Magnus, generated much favorable media coverage, both national and local. In 2015, President Obama welcomed RPD officer Erik Oliver to the White House for a briefing on what Richmond was doing right. Attorney General Loretta Lynch visited Richmond for similar information-gathering purposes. Magnus himself was tapped by the Department of Justice to investigate police department dysfunction in Ferguson and Baltimore. But Richmond’s experience also reminds us that there are no quick fixes for an arm of local government in need of fundamental repair. If it took progressive city leadership more than a decade to make institutional change in the RPD, how long will police reform take in cities lacking such vision and determination?

Despite his calm, self-effacing, even stolid manner, Magnus is regularly described, in the press, as “unconventional.” Given his chosen profession, that’s not surprising. A native of Lansing, Michigan, Magnus grew up in university circles, with no other cops in the family tree. His father taught at Michigan State (MSU); his mother was a local piano teacher. He first worked as a police dispatcher and then became a paramedic. After joining his hometown police force as a patrol officer, he rose to the rank of captain in sixteen years. Along the way, he earned a master’s degree in labor relations at MSU. Then he departed to become chief in Fargo, North Dakota.

Six years later, when Magnus was forty-five, he applied for the top job in Richmond. In Fargo, he had a strong record of accomplishment in one of the safest and whitest places in America, a city then averaging only one homicide every two years. Richmond’s city hall search committee wanted a new chief committed to the crime reduction strategy known as “community policing.” But some members wondered how Magnus would fare in largely nonwhite Richmond, whose homicide rate in 2005–06 made it one of the most dangerous cities in the United States per capita.

Before its current wave of popularity, community policing gained some traction three decades ago when it was championed by the Clinton administration. But the idea never took hold in Richmond, where, in the 1970s and ’80s, a crew of trigger-happy cops known as the “Cowboys” ran roughshod over the community, garnering national publicity on 60 Minutes and other media outlets. Among their costly misdeeds was the fatal shooting of two African Americans, whose families won a $3 million judgment in an NAACP-assisted case accusing city officials of ignoring or condoning a “pattern of misconduct.”

After the Cowboys were disbanded, overly aggressive street teams, known as the “Jump-Out Boys,” took over. In RPD publicity photos, they posed proudly “decked out in full tactical gear and toting MP5 submachine guns,” as San Francisco Magazine’s Joe Eskanazi discovered. But in interviews with Eskanazi, RPD veterans from that era sadly acknowledged just leaving “murderous gangs locked in a futile stalemate with police.” As the city’s Latino population grew, Richmond cops were not even friendly to newly arrived immigrants just trying to survive peacefully in El Norte.

The RPD hassled day laborers outside of Home Depot, conducted traffic stops targeting Spanish-speaking drivers, and roughed up participants in a 2002 Cinco de Mayo festival. The former city employee Andres Soto won a $175,000 settlement over that misconduct, and cofounded the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a group dedicated to community improvements like police reform.

By 2005, gang strife had become so bad that some city councilors favored local deployment of the National Guard. Veterans of Middle Eastern wars, newly hired by the RPD, were shocked by the street violence they encountered. “I couldn’t believe I was in an American city,” recalls RPD officer Ben Therriault, who served with a military police brigade in Iraq. “I thought I was back in Baghdad.”

Richmond’s new city manager Bill Lindsay and city councilors like liberal Democrat Tom Butt and Progressive Alliance leader Gayle McLaughlin decided to employ Magnus, not the failed paramilitary responses of the past. Beginning in early 2006, the new chief reshuffled the RPD’s command structure and began promoting like-minded senior officers. As Magnus told me later, he limited the use of “street teams” in high-crime neighborhoods because of their tendency to “roust anybody who’s out walking around, doing whatever, with the idea that they might have a warrant outstanding or be holding drugs or something.”

According to the new chief, that kind of law enforcement activity, if conducted on a regular basis, only served “to alienate the whole population that lives in those neighborhoods.” Instead, more officers were switched to regular beats, where they were encouraged to do foot patrolling, where possible. Under a new job evaluation system, career advancement became more closely tied to each officer’s ability to build long-term relationships with individual residents, neighborhood groups, and community leaders.

“We assign people for longer periods of time to specific geographic areas with the expectation that they get to know and become known by residents,” Magnus explained. “They are in and out of businesses, nonprofits, churches, a wide variety of community organizations, and they come to be seen as a partner in crime reduction.”

Richmond cops were given personalized business cards, with their work cell phone numbers and email addresses, and were urged to give them out. The RPD even began hosting “Coffee with a Cop” conversations in places where residents could meet officers responsible for their neighborhoods, ask them questions, and get crime-fighting tips.

To set a personal example in a city with few resident police officers, Magnus bought a home in the Richmond neighborhood known as the North and East. From there he could bicycle to work, and even when off duty he was never far from the daily challenges he faced on the job. He could hear police sirens late into the night, the occasional shot being fired, and members of his neighborhood association knocking on his door to report nearby crimes.

City budgets kept the RPD at full strength during a period when fiscal pressures on neighboring cities, like Oakland, led to force reductions and what some residents believed was a related increase in crime. So Magnus was able to hire and promote more women, minorities, and Richmond residents. The chief also sought applicants of all races and genders who, he said, could “show empathy with victims of crime, who are not afraid to smile, to get out of the police car and interact in a positive way with people, who can demonstrate emotional intelligence, who are good listeners, who have patience, who don’t feel that it takes away from their authority to demonstrate kindness.”

Through attrition, Magnus was able to personally select more than ninety of the department’s nearly 140 patrol officers and all but four of its forty-six supervisors. By 2014 about 60 percent of the department’s 182 active police officers were from minority groups. The RPD had twenty-six women on its payroll, including several female officers who were highly visible in the community. Only a dozen or so officers serving when Magnus arrived remained on the force. As the chief explained to one reporter, “it’s easier to get new people in a department than it is to get a new culture in a department.”

The chief’s personnel decisions were much applauded later on. But his initial shake-up of the RPD roster threatened an institutional hierarchy with well-established perks, power, and promotional expectations. In late 2006, seven senior officers sued Magnus and the city for racial discrimination, claiming that he had created a hostile work environment for them as African Americans.

Richmond police had hassled day laborers outside of Home Depot, conducted traffic stops targeting Spanish-speaking drivers, and roughed up participants in a 2002 Cinco de Mayo festival.

Robert Rogers, then a reporter for the Contra Costa Times, covered the resulting state and federal court cases, which took five years to resolve and cost the city nearly $5 million. He believed this litigation was part of broader “old guard” resistance to city government changes introduced by newcomers like Magnus, city manager Lindsay, and Gayle McLaughlin, the California Green who became Richmond’s mayor for eight years. After deliberating in April 2012, a Contra Costa County jury rejected $18 million worth of damage claims, including $3 million for “emotional distress.” As John Geluardi reported for the East Bay Express, the jurors concluded that the plaintiffs were past beneficiaries of a “buddy system that facilitated their rise to the highest positions in the department through intimidation, race baiting tactics, and backroom dealing.” The court determined that racial discrimination had not been a factor in the alleged sidelining of their careers.

In December 2014, a Richmond youth group organized a downtown vigil lasting four and a half hours, the period of time that Michael Brown lay in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, after being shot by a police officer. About 100 people attended, including Chris Magnus. When a young protestor handed him a hand-painted sign declaring that “Black Lives Matter,” Magnus displayed it to passing traffic, while chatting with others at the event.

This peaceful scene in Richmond stood in sharp contrast to the almost simultaneous street clashes between police and protestors in Berkeley and Oakland, just a few miles away, after grand juries failed to indict Michael Brown’s killer or the officer who fatally choked Eric Garner in New York City. Yet, after a photo of Magnus and his sign appeared in local and national media outlets, the Richmond Police Officers Association (RPOA) criticized the chief for participating in political activities while in uniform. Backed by Richmond city officials, Magnus strongly disputed the union’s criticism. At a public appearance, he asked why it should be objectionable “to acknowledge that ‘black lives matter’ and show respect for the very real concerns of our minority communities.”

The RPOA reaction was muted compared to police union outbursts directed at protestors or public officials who sided with them in other cities. Magnus’s own view of police unionism was not hostile at all, based on his own rank-and-file experience in Lansing. There, he once joined union reformers who favored what he calls “an alternative way of addressing a lot of the issues we had with management.” His opposition slate defeated longtime incumbents no longer in touch with the concerns of younger officers.

Sounding very much like a local community organizer, Magnus recommended a two-step approach to fighting violent crime: “Get to know your neighbors, then get organized!”

The RPOA underwent its own leadership change a few months after the chief’s BLM sign holding. To clear the air about that controversy, Magnus met with Virgil Thomas, the union’s new president, and other officers. After an exchange that one participant recalls “was not warm and fuzzy,” Thomas told the press that he better understood what Magnus “was trying to do—he’s trying to bridge the gap, like we all are.” A year later, Thomas was defeated for reelection by Ben Therriault, the former military policeman who joined the RPD after serving in Iraq. Therriault grew up on a Flathead Indian reservation in Montana, where his father was tribal chairman. Like Magnus, he became a Richmond resident—in his case by taking advantage of a program that enables officers to live rent free in local public housing. “A lot of coworkers thought I was crazy,” he told a reporter, but Therriault’s new neighbors were quite happy to have him in their midst. Even though Magnus and Therriault were both model community police officers in that respect, Therriault told me fellow officers faulted Magnus for his “problematic symbolism” with the BLM movement. The movement, he said, “is not viewed as law-enforcement friendly.”

By the summer of 2014, there had not been a fatal shooting by the Richmond police since 2007. Between 2008 and 2014, the RPD averaged less than one officer-involved shooting of any kind annually. On September 6, 2014, the Contra Costa Times ran a story highlighting these favorable statistics, under the headline “Use of Deadly Force by Police Disappears on Richmond Streets.”

Unfortunately, that media celebration was premature. Just a week later, Richmond officer Wallace Jensen pumped three bullets into twenty-four-year-old Richard Perez, after a sidewalk struggle in which Jensen claimed that an intoxicated Perez tried to grab his gun. Both the district attorney and the RPD’s Professional Standards Unit found Jensen blameless, although the city later reached an $850,000 settlement with his family. After returning to duty briefly, Jensen applied for and was granted medical disability retirement.

The Perez case stirred heated local debate about Jensen’s use of deadly force and how such incidents are investigated. At a city council hearing, Magnus, who attended the young man’s funeral, argued that Richmond officers were “using a wide set of skills, including good verbal, sensitivity, and de-escalation skills to gain people’s cooperation. The results clearly speak for themselves. We have had only two fatal officer-involved shootings in a period of ten years. . . . That’s one of the lowest rates of force you’re going to find in any urban police department in this country.”

In 2014, Magnus told the council, the RPD responded to 122,159 “calls for service,” as he called them. Nearly 3,000 resulted in somebody being arrested (and 357 guns being confiscated). But only 6 percent of all Richmond arrests required the use of force in some form. In those situations, a Taser was deployed about 25 percent of the time. Seventy of the 182 suspects arrested forcibly were injured, along with twenty-two of the officers who detained them.

In twelve of those cases, officer conduct was reviewed by the RPD itself or, less frequently, the Richmond Police Commission (RPC), a nine-member civilian body appointed by the mayor and the city council. To encourage more independent probes in the future, Magnus facilitated the transfer of RPD “internal affairs” functions to a new Office of Professional Accountability located in city hall. The OPA’s first director is Eddie Aubrey, a former police officer, prosecutor, and judge who told the Mercury News that this rare arrangement can be “a model for agencies around the country,” and can “benefit communities” long distrustful of the police. In one of his initial investigations, involving police sexual misconduct with a teenage sex worker, Aubrey recommended that one officer be fired and eight others be suspended, demoted, or given letters of reprimand.

In early 2016, the city council overhauled the RPC as well. It’s now known as the Citizens’ Police Review Commission (CPRC), and has an expanded investigative mandate and additional resources of its own. As these changes were being made, Allwyn Brown, the RPD deputy chief under Magnus (and later his successor), told the East Bay Express that he wasn’t worried about having “another pair of eyes and ears for checks and balances.”

Even in Richmond, reformers like Magnus and Brown can’t rest on their laurels for long. In June 2015, in an open letter to Richmond residents, Magnus reported that the city was “experiencing a troubling upswing in both violent and property crime”—a 16 percent increase overall in 2015 over the previous midyear rate, with armed robberies going up 26 percent. More alarming was a 9 percent increase in January-to-June calls to the RPD about shootings. Gunfire claimed ten lives during this period, just one less than Richmond’s homicide total for the whole previous year. This murder rate spike was national in scope and, in other cities, spawned the hypothesis that it reflected “the so-called Ferguson effect”—that is, less aggressive policing methods as a result of protests against police killings of African Americans.

In fact, in Richmond and elsewhere, many police officials saw the problem in terms of more young people settling their disputes with guns—an uptick in retaliatory gang violence that had to be addressed with more, not less, community engagement. “We can reverse this recent trend, but we must take it seriously and respond now by working together,” Magnus warned in the open letter. He urged residents to form more Neighborhood Watch groups and to support Operation Ceasefire, the RPD-backed, church-based campaign to defuse turf rivalries with neighborhood walks, one-on-one meetings, and peace vigils. Sounding very much like a local community organizer, Magnus recommended a two-step approach: “Get to know your neighbors, then get organized!”

Six months later, Magnus was getting to know new neighbors himself, in Arizona. Looking for new career challenges, he left Richmond to become police chief in Tucson, which has a police department five times larger than Richmond’s. Awaiting him there was a not-very-warm welcome from the local police union, whose leaders had opposed his appointment and preferred a candidate from Dallas instead. During the hiring process, Brad Pelton, vice president of the Tucson union, came to Richmond with a fellow officer to interview Magnus. He noticed a framed political cartoon of the controversial vigil commemorating the death of Michael Brown. “That it was hanging prominently on his wall spoke volumes to me,” Pelton reported back.

On the Arizona union’s scorecard of his record in Richmond, Magnus was credited with “reduced crime, increased police staffing, increased officer compensation, and improved community relations.” But that didn’t outweigh his negatives, which included the fact that he had “participated in a ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest and brought in a civilian to replace the commander in the internal affairs division.”

In Richmond, community policing continues under Magnus’s successor, Allwyn Brown, a thirty-two-year veteran of the RPD. That’s a resume still preferred by the RPOA, whose president, Ben Therriault, says he already sees a “big difference with someone who grew up within the department versus an outsider.” Nevertheless, “outsiders” still have ideas sometimes worth checking out or trying.

Last November, for example, Brown joined U.S. law enforcement leaders on a trip to the United Kingdom to learn more about “de-escalation” tactics used by its largely unarmed police officers. “My experience in Scotland sort of changed my lens, in terms of how I look at force incidents,” Brown told the New York Times. “Our cadence, leading up to the moment of truth when force is used, seems like it can be a little fast.”

Ten months later, in the wake of fatal officer-involved shootings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis and the retaliatory killing of five cops in Dallas, Richmond police sergeant Ernest Loucas assured KQED, a local radio station, that Richmond’s more positive police-community relationships would “keep officers safe and help them fight crime,” as the reporter put it, even if “just putting on the uniform and driving around in a marked vehicle makes him a target in some neighborhoods.” 

By the summer of 2014, there had not been a fatal shooting by the Richmond police since 2007. Between 2008 and 2014, the RPD averaged less than one officer-involved shooting of any kind annually. 

When a small multiracial crowd gathered in front of Richmond city hall to protest police violence elsewhere and pray for the dead Dallas officers, Brown, like Magnus before him, dared to appear and address the concerns of those assembled. “We are proud of the gains that we’ve made, but that’s just today, right?” he said. “We are proud of the relationships that we’ve built up, but all relationships are based on trust and trust is fragile. And trust is an easy thing to break, so we don’t take it lightly.”

In Richmond, at least, seeing police chiefs on the same general side as anti-violence protestors is still commonplace. In too many other cities, the gulf between the public and the police remains an unhealthy reality, and signs of progress are harder to find.

Steve Early

Steve Early is a journalist and retired national union official living in Richmond, California. This article is drawn from his forthcoming book Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City, to be published by Beacon Press in January.