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

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The Richmond Police Department was a mess internally, reeling from scandals, lawsuits and high turnover. City leaders decided to look outside the department for a chief.

Chris Magnus
Chris Magnus Ben Margot, AP

One of the first things Magnus did when he took over was to disband the department’s “street teams,” units of heavily armed officers deployed in high-crime areas.

The teams stopped “everything that moved,” Richmond Police Capt. Mark Gagan said, in hopes of finding suspects with warrants or carrying small amounts of illegal drugs. Gagan said the strategy is still a popular one across the country, but Magnus didn’t like it that many in the community perceived the aggressive street teams as an occupying army.

Magnus also eliminated the seniority system that allowed officers to choose the areas they would patrol. He required officers to take on more responsibilities on their beats beyond responding to calls. Beat officers are required to attend neighborhood meetings and to maintain a high profile at churches, schools and businesses. They’re encouraged to hand out their mobile phone numbers and email addresses to residents.

“A lot of people were skeptical at first … I know I was skeptical. I mean, not only was he coming from outside the department, he was coming from Fargo, of all places,” said Officer Virgil Thomas, a 19-year veteran of the force and the newly installed president of the police union. “But he came in with a plan and stuck to it, and the image of the city and of the police has changed dramatically. Morale has improved greatly.”

The union initially objected to the police chief’s participation in the Dec. 9 demonstration. The association’s lawyer said Magnus’ appearance in uniform “dishonored the department” and violated a law barring political activity on duty. But Thomas said the union backed away from those claims after sitting down and talking with Magnus about the demonstration.

“We talked about it, and I understand what he was trying to do,” Thomas said. “He’s trying to bridge the gap, like we all are.”

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