President Joe Biden is nominating Tucson, Ariz., Police Chief Chris Magnus, a gay man and an advocate for progressive policing policies, to be commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.
Magnus would be the first out member of the LGBTQ+ community to lead CPB, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. He was one of six Homeland Security nominees Biden announced Monday.
Magnus was named Tucson’s police chief in 2016 after having been chief in Richmond, Calif., and Fargo, N.D. He started his law enforcement career as a dispatcher in his hometown of Lansing, Mich., in 1979, and he rose through the ranks there.
While working in Richmond, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, in 2014, he was photographed holding a Black Lives Matter sign at a protest shortly after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. “When criticized by the local police union, said he would do it again,” The New York Times notes.
In all of the cities where he worked, “Magnus developed a reputation as a progressive police leader who focused on relationship-building between the police and community, implementing evidence-based best practices, promoting reform, and insisting on police accountability,” according to a White House press release. Violent crime decreased sharply in Richmond during his tenure.
He was an outspoken critic of Donald Trump’s immigration policies, denouncing them in a 2017 Times column that also took then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to task. “The harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and Mr. Sessions’s reckless policies ignore a basic reality known by most good cops and prosecutors,” Magnus wrote. “If people are afraid of the police, if they fear they may become separated from their families or harshly interrogated based on their immigration status, they won’t report crimes or come forward as witnesses.”
Although he resisted attempts to make Tucson a sanctuary city, “he generally eschewed cooperation with federal immigration authorities, placing him at odds with the Border Patrol union — and many of the agents and officials who will potentially be under his command,” The Washington Post reports.
His career has not been without controversy. Critics on the right have objected to his progressivism, while those on the left have said it doesn’t go far enough. Last year in Tucson, it took two months for the police department to release body-camera video of Carlos Ingram Lopez, a 27-year-old Latinx man who died in police custody.
“There’s an entire culture of secrecy, lack of transparency, of cruelty, within the Border Patrol,” Alba Jaramillo, who heads Tucson-based immigrant rights group Arizona Justice for Our Neighbors, told the Times. “Having someone lead that agency from our own community who has not been transparent is very problematic.” Magnus apologized for the delay and offered his resignation as police chief, but city officials did not accept it.
In 2012 in Richmond, a group of Black officers filed suit accusing Magnus’s department of racial discrimination, but a jury found the allegations without merit. In 2015 the city settled a wrongful termination suit brought by an officer who said Magnus had sexually harassed him and used racial slurs. Magnus said these claims were “entirely bogus,” according to the Times.
“There were still people at that time who felt I’m an easier target because I’m a gay man,” he told the paper. “That’s not the first time in my career I’ve experienced that.”
Magnus’s nomination has drawn substantial praise. “He’s a strong leader, thoughtful and quiet, which is exactly what CBP needs,” Gil Kerlikowske, who headed the bureau during President Barack Obama’s second term, told the Post. “I couldn’t be happier for the organization.”
In the Times interview, Magnus said, “I like a challenge. I genuinely care. I think I want to be able to demonstrate humanity and empathy when approaching these programs. But I try hard to demonstrate an intellectual humility. It’s a fancy way of saying, I guess I have a lot to learn from other people.”
Magnus is married to Terrance Cheung, the former chief of staff to Richmond’s mayor, and is believed to be the first police chief to enter into a same-sex marriage.