Openly gay police chief revitalizes force in minority-dominated California city

Chris Magnue

Chris Magnue Ben Margot, AP

Richmond, Calif., Police Chief Chris Magnus joins a peaceful protest over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, on Dec. 9, 2014.Kristopher Skinner, AP

Richmond, Calif., Police Chief Chris Magnus joins a peaceful protest over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, on Dec. 9, 2014.

RICHMOND, Calif. — In December, the openly gay, white police chief of this tough, minority-dominated Northern California city held up a sign reading “#blacklivesmatter” during a protest over the deaths of two unarmed black suspects at the hands of Missouri and New York police.

The photo of Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus with the sign went viral, sparking criticism from the local police officers’ union and debate over whether his participation was appropriate.

But the episode also put a spotlight on a grassroots policing style credited with turning around a moribund department and helping drive down crime in an industrial city plagued by gang violence.

While similar cities grapple with vocal and sometime-violent unrest over police relations, Magnus and his department have won over many residents and political leaders with an unconventional policing style that stresses community outreach over show of force.

“I have ambitious plans for policing in general and Richmond in particular,” Magnus said after the department’s monthly meeting of the command staff on Jan. 12, where the chief’s focus on community policing was on display.

Code enforcement, homeless outreach and a shake-up of command duties to build stronger ties to the community were all on the agenda, along with equipping patrol officers with body cameras and a call for more social media communications.

Magnus, 54, is soft-spoken, but he curses like the seasoned police officer he is. Before formally taking over the Richmond force in January 2006, Magnus served six years as the chief of Fargo, North Dakota.

Before that, he rose to the rank of captain in the Lansing, Michigan, police department during his 16-year career there.

Magnus says he steals many of his community policing ideas from other departments that have successfully implemented them. He also says many of his policies are adapted from the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit organization that studies and teaches policing strategies.

Magnus was an unlikely choice to take over the troubled department when he was lured from Fargo, a city of roughly the same population as Richmond but a world apart in terms of crime and demographic makeup.

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