The Gay Cop Who Turned Around One of America's Most Dangerous Cities

Refinery Town

Fifty-two-year-old Chris Magnus, a fair-haired Midwesterner, circulated through the crowd with no visible sign of Richmond Police Department rank. Twenty-five hundred environmental activists had just completed the largest protest march in Richmond’s history, walking from downtown to the city’s century old Chevron refinery. Magnus greeted people in friendly, low-key fashion. He was hatless, wearing blue jeans and a windbreaker with a barely noticeable RPD logo on it. When he approached a small group of us chatting about the large turnout, he smiled broadly. 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!”

Despite his calm, even stolid, appearance, Magnus has often been described in the media as being unconventional. That characterization does apply to his personal background, which includes no other cops in the family tree. A native of Lansing, Michigan, Magnus grew up in university circles. His father was a professor at Michigan State (MSU); his mother, a local piano teacher. He first worked as a police dispatcher and later 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 serve as police chief in Fargo, North Dakota.

Six years later, when Magnus was forty-five, he applied to become Richmond’s new chief. That was in 2005, when the city was rightly notorious for its violent crime, youth gangs, drug trafficking, and troubled relations between police and the public. Richmond’s city hall search committee wanted to hire someone who could reduce crime by reconnecting the RPD to the community it serves. Community policing, as that approach is known, now has many boosters, but a decade ago it was still little understood and not so widely embraced.

Those vetting Magnus for the chief’s job in Richmond were duly impressed with his credentials as a public safety reformer. But, as top cop in Fargo, he was coming from one of the safest and whitest places in America, a community then averaging one homicide every two years.  In contrast, Richmond’s population of 110,000 was 80 percent people of color, most of them poor or working class. Its homicide rate made it one of the most dangerous cities in the United States per capita.

“I really thought Fargo would be a disqualifier for me because of the demographics of the city,” Magnus said.  In addition, the candidate from North Dakota was not yet known for being one of the few gay police chiefs in America. If that fact had been publicized during Richmond’s search process, Magnus might not have been hired, according to one city hall observer. Fortunately, City Manager Bill Lindsay and then city councilor Gayle McLaughlin (soon to become Richmond’s two-term Green mayor) decided to take a chance on a man now celebrated as one of the country’s most effective police reformers.

The department Magnus inherited had a sordid history of corruption, brutality, racial division, and hostile interaction with African-Americans and Latino immigrants. For their part, veterans of recent military service abroad, who became rookie cops in Richmond, were shocked by the level of gun violence they encountered. “I couldn’t believe I was in an American city,” recalls Ben Therriault, a Richmond officer who spent 2005 assigned to a military police brigade in Iraq. “I thought I was back in Baghdad.”

Beginning in early 2006, Chris Magnus reshuffled the RPD’s command structure and began promoting like-minded senior officers. The RPD curtailed its use of overly-aggressive “street teams” that, according to Magnus, would “go into high crime neighborhoods and 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.”  If conducted on a regular basis, that kind of law enforcement activity only served “to alienate the whole population that lives in those neighborhoods,” he argued. “And 95 percent of those are good people not engaged in crime.”

On a day-to-day basis, the RPD assigned more officers to regular beats, where they were encouraged to do more foot patrolling. The RPD’s use of bicycle patrolling increased in some neighborhoods. Under a new job evaluation system, career advancement became more closely tied to an officer’s ability to build long-term relationships with individual residents, neighborhood groups, and community leaders.

Richmond cops were given personalized business cards, with their work cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and urged to give them out. The RPD even began hosting Coffee-with-a-Cop sessions in cafes and restaurants where small groups of residents could meet officers assigned to their neighborhoods, ask them questions, and get public safety tips.

“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.”

Magnus argues that this approach has a dual benefit. It “not only leads to better outcomes in terms of crime reduction, it also makes for police officers who are a lot more satisfied and productive over the course of their careers because they’re not just arresting the same people over and over again. They’re actually engaged with residents. They’re seeing their work have an impact and make a difference. They’re feeling appreciated and valued.”

To set a strong personal example, Magnus took another unusual step when he first arrived. Although most RPD personnel live outside the city, he bought a home in the Richmond neighborhood known as the North and East. From there he could bicycle to work and, when off duty, was never far from the daily challenges he faced on the job. At home he could hear police sirens late into the night, the occasional shot being fired, and find members of his neighborhood association knocking on his door to report nearby crimes.

Under Magnus the department began hiring and promoting more women, minorities, and Richmond residents. “When you have a department that doesn’t look anything like the community it serves, you’re asking for trouble, no matter how dedicated and professional your employees are,” he said.

“We want officers who can show empathy with victims of crime, who are not afraid to smile or 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, and who don’t feel that it diminishes their authority to demonstrate kindness.”

As retirements and other openings permitted, Magnus was able to personally select more than 90 of the department’s nearly 140 patrol officers. By 2014, about 60 percent of the RPD’s 182 active police officers were from minority groups; twenty-six were women, including several new command staff officers highly visible in the community. As Magnus observes, “It’s easier to get new people in a department than it is to get a new culture in a department.”

Adapted from Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City by Steve Early, with a foreword by Sen. Bernie Sanders (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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