Goodbye, Mr. Magnus

Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus is leaving a legacy of departmental reform, officer accountability, and reduced violent crime.

The Catahoula Coffee Co., a popular cafe in Richmond, is a regular gathering place for students, artists, neighborhood activists, cops, and politicians who pop by for strong coffee, fresh pastries, and local gossip. But on a recent morning, the mood in the cafe was noticeably glum. Word had gotten around that Police Chief Chris Magnus, a cafe regular, was leaving town for a job as the top cop in Tucson, Arizona.

“He’s been so supportive in city life and as a private person,” resident Ellen Seskin said over the morning din. “We’re not only losing our chief of police, I feel like we’re losing a friend.”

City officials were also disappointed when Magnus announced he was leaving. Magnus was, after all, nationally known for his community policing model that was both cutting edge and successful. And he had changed Richmond police culture — a department that was once infamous for how it mistreated low-income people of color.

During his tenure, Magnus, the Bay Area’s most progressive police chief, became the emblem of Richmond’s overall transformation, which was initiated by City Manager Bill Lindsay, who, in 2006, hired Magnus not long after Lindsay had arrived himself. With strong city council support, Lindsay transformed Richmond’s overall image from an oil company town known for its high crime rates and civic corruption to a city with progressive values and a diversified economy that elevates residents over polluting industries and corrupt city officials. And Magnus not only was successful at lowering the crime rate, but he also greatly improved the police department’s relationship with Richmond residents.

Mayor Tom Butt said he, the city council, and the city administration are indebted to Magnus. “He came to Richmond nearly ten years ago when the homicide rate in the city was at an all-time high, morale in the police department was low, and relationships with the community were strained and practically non-existent,” Butt said. “Our homicide rate is now the lowest in decades, he instituted a real community policing model that’s praised nationwide, and he has made our police force one of the best trained and most respected in the region.”

Magnus, the region’s first openly gay police chief, said he and his husband Terrance Cheung, who serves as Butt’s chief of staff, had to do a lot of thinking before they decided to leave. “I’m very comfortable in Richmond,” Magnus said in an interview late last week. “Terrance and I have developed strong relationships here, so it was a very tough decision to make. But I’m 55, and if I’m going to make a change, the time is now. I love challenges and this is a chance to push the 21st Century Policing Model further in a larger police department.”

With a population of about 528,000, according to the US Census, Tucson is approximately five times larger than Richmond and presents a different set of problems for Magnus. But the city has one thing in common with Richmond when Magnus first arrived here: The Tucson Police Department suffers from low morale.

The 21st Century Policing Model that Magnus referenced is a national effort to transform the country’s 18,000 police agencies. According to the presidential task force formed to study the concept, the idea is for police departments to discard flawed tough-on-crime policing models and adopt proactive policies that establish solid community relationships based on four central principles: treating people with dignity and respect, listening to individuals’ “voice” during encounters, being transparent in decision making, and conveying a sense of trustworthy motives.

These are precisely the principles Magnus has been widely credited with establishing in Richmond during the past decade. As he departs for Tucson, he leaves behind an impressive legacy of departmental reform and accountability, reduced violent crime, and police-community partnerships that are uncommon in US police departments. Laurie Robinson, a professor of criminology and co-chair of the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing called Magnus’s innovations in Richmond “highly unusual” and on the “leading edge of good practice.”

Community interaction was perhaps the hallmark of Magnus’ reforms. He divided the city into three patrol districts and once officers were assigned to a particular district, they stayed there. District officers were required to give out their cellphone numbers and asked to attend more community meetings to forge relationships with groups and individuals. These strategies helped build a foundation of trust between the police department and Richmond residents who had been wary of cops for decades. “Now it’s very rewarding to hear community members make comments about their beat cops,” Magnus said. “Their relationships go so much deeper than what you usually find. The community members are really possessive of their officers and that’s what I wanted.”

Magnus updated the department with new patrol cars, and crime fighting tools like gunfire locating devices and CompStat, a crime analysis software that detects crime spikes so police can be proactive. He also established monthly use-of-force reviews.

So why were Magnus’ reforms successful in Richmond when other departments are so resistant to change? It wasn’t easy. Prior to 2006, Richmond had one of the worst departments in the Bay Area. The command staff was indifferent or incompetent. The department was rudderless and bogged down with internal strife between white and Black officers. Residents made frequent charges of racism and excessive use of force. And there were a series of embarrassing sex scandals. In one case, a Richmond police officer stopped a woman for a traffic violation and forced her to perform oral sex. Then, shortly after, she reported the incident to police command staff, the offending officer called her cellphone to ask why she was causing problems for him.

Magnus knew what he wanted to accomplish when he arrived in Richmond, and he knew how to accomplish it. But he also had the advantage of a very unusual circumstance. In 2003, Richmond experienced a financial crash due to administrative mismanagement. Hundreds of city employees were laid off and the county took over management of the city. In 2005, Lindsay was hired and due to a mass exodus of department heads, he was able to re-stack the city with good government-minded managers. He was, in a sense, given an opportunity to change the very DNA of the city, and Magnus’ community policing concept fit perfectly with that goal.

The city council, Lindsay, and Richmond residents were all on the same page: The police department had to change, and they gave Magnus’ long-term reform plans time and support to succeed — something not freely given in other cities where short-term fixes, union squabbles, and petty politics typically prevail. “People want immediate solutions to problems, so it’s not uncommon for cities to do crime management by press release, always coming up with a new program and constantly being in a reactive mode,” Magnus told the Express in 2011. “It was Bill [Lindsay] who allowed me to make a longer-term investment in problem solving,and that is very rare, to tell you the truth.”

Magnus said Assistant Chief Allwyn Brown, a veteran officer and supporter of community policing, will likely be the interim chief. But Magnus warned that Brown may have a different style. “AB is an excellent officer, and I know he’ll do a great job, but I don’t know if he’ll be answering emails from neighborhood organizers at 10 p.m. Frankly, I’ve spoiled a lot of residents,” Magnus said. “They deserved to be spoiled because they were deprived for such a long time.”


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