|Chronicle Story on Chief Magnus
December 17, 2005
In case you missed it, here is a long article from today’s SF Chronicle about Richmond’s incoming police chief, Chris Magnus.
Fargo's top cop ready for Richmond
Fargo, N.D. -- There has been only one slaying here this year. And it had none of the gory elements associated with the movie named for the town.
It happened when a man came upon a drunk urinating next to his parked pickup truck outside a bar. The man got into his truck and ran down the drunk, authorities said. He's been charged with murder.
Fargo Police Chief Chris Magnus is proud that nothing worse has happened this year in his city of 91,000 people, which is considered one of the safest in the country. But soon the chief will leave this glacial Upper Midwestern town, where he's been the top cop for six years, to head the police department in a city ranked among the nation's most dangerous: Richmond.
And frankly, Magnus is tired of the comparison. Since he was hired in November, he has heard the snickering, read the critical articles, and seen the quizzical looks written on the faces of just about every Californian he meets.
How is a 45-year-old white guy from Fargo, which averages one homicide every two years, going to take charge in a racially diverse town that so far this year has seen 38 killings, one of the highest per-capita rates in California?
"Some of the news coverage has smacked of -- well, elitism is the wrong word -- but certainly of, 'What does Fargo have to offer a place like the Bay Area?' " Magnus said recently as he steered his car along the icy roads to the police station.
"I really thought Fargo would be a disqualifier for me because of the demographics of the city," he acknowledged. Fargo is 94 percent white, according to census data; the figure in Richmond is 31 percent. "But Fargo has only been a quarter of my career."
Before Magnus came to Fargo, whose citizenry is largely of Scandinavian descent, he rose to the rank of police captain in Lansing, Mich.
"The population in Lansing was extremely diverse, with a large Latino and black community," he said. "I worked for a chief who was African American, and he was phenomenal. But the politics were such that I knew I was not going to make it to the chief's position anytime soon. And there were things I wanted to do that only a chief could do."
So Magnus applied for the job in North Dakota. He took over the police department three years after the murder flick "Fargo" hit the big screen. To this day he inevitably gets the same reaction when he tells someone outside the state that he's chief of the Fargo Police Department.
"Did you replace Marge Gunderson?" they'll josh, referring to Frances McDormand's character in the film, who is actually police chief of Brainerd, Minn. Then they'll say, "Be sure to stay away from the wood chipper," Magnus said, referring to a scene in the movie in which a body is fed into a grinder.
Fargo police grumble every time the movie is mentioned. Sgt. Pat Claus remembers when the film was up for seven Academy Awards and every news outlet was calling the police station for local color.
"One radio station commentator asked if we could put someone on the phone who talked like Marge," he said of the actress' impersonation of the Norwegian American accent that peppers the locals' sing-song, yoo-betcha speech patterns. "We don't even talk that way."
But the truth is they do.
Just for fun, one of the officers dashed out of a recent Tuesday morning meeting of department heads to get his police-issue muskrat, a Russian-style furry hat with earflaps -- the same kind McDormand wore in the movie. Lt. Paul Laney modeled it for the room while the group waited for the chief to return from a brief conference with the mayor over at City Hall. Everybody laughed.
The department no longer uses the hats, opting instead for a simple stocking cap with "FPD" emblazoned on the front. Magnus, wearing a pair of khakis and a greenish-gray Ralph Lauren sweater, walked in just in time for the show. He rolled his eyes and chuckled.
Then they got down to business.
Overtime is down $80,000 from last year, a member of Magnus' command staff reported. The chief praised recent scheduling efforts to keep the budget in hand. Then the group moved on to the bigger problems: the deadly cold and what to do about homeless people who have been blackballed from the city's shelters for bad behavior.
At least four months out of the year, the weather in Fargo falls below zero, sometimes 30 or 40 degrees below zero. Police believe the frigid temperatures may be partly responsible for the low crime rate. During the winter, they say, the crooks are more likely to stay home with the heat cranked up and a fire crackling in the hearth.
At the Fryn' Pan, an all-night diner, patrons leave their cars running in the parking lot while they munch fried chicken and burgers inside. Otherwise their engines might freeze.
While the cold may deter many criminals, it creates other policing issues. Officers think it's a big factor in Fargo's alcohol abuse problem. There are nearly as many bars in Fargo as there are churches.
Magnus said his officers make one or two emergency room visits a day for alcohol-related incidents ranging from car accidents to sex crimes to assaults.
He said the city also is plagued by methamphetamine use and is grappling with a flood of refugees from Bosnia, Sudan and Somalia -- brought to North Dakota through the efforts of Lutheran-Church-run programs -- who don't always get along with each other.
"We're experiencing most of the crime in the city's newer housing," Magnus said. "There are a lot of apartments -- real high density. About 60 percent of the people in Fargo are renters."
Magnus has an "it takes a village" approach to stopping crime. He has collaborated with every Fargo agency that would join him, including the health and social services departments, plus three universities located here and across the Red River of the North in Moorhead, Minn.
"Because we're not dealing with one violent crime after another, we have time to focus on the quality-of-life issues and the circumstances that contribute to higher rates of violent crimes," Magnus said.
The chief has worked to halt urban blight and has made a study of the cultural differences among the refugees who have settled in his state. In addition, he has worked on programs to reduce binge drinking on the community's college campuses. It's not typical of a police chief to become deeply involved in the social issues that eventually lead to crime, but Magnus' friends and colleagues say he's not a typical police chief.
"He's probably one of the greatest visionaries I've ever seen," said Lt. Laney, one of 127 sworn officers in the Fargo Police Department. "And he's got the fortitude to get it done."
The youngest son of an art professor and a piano teacher, Magnus started as a police dispatcher in Lansing, went on to become a paramedic, and then became an officer. He earned a master's in labor relations from Michigan State University while working as a captain in the force.
In Fargo, Magnus lives alone in an early 1900s cottage filled with art and his two dogs, a shepherd mix named Kozzie and a dalmatian named Tag.
His style is more folksy than bureaucratic. One of his first changes after coming to Fargo was to move the chief's office from the second floor to a room off the station's lobby so he would be accessible to people. He also has a weekly question-and-answer session on the Police Department's Web site called "Chat With the Chief."
One recent question: "I was just wondering if the police have started cracking down yet on loud cars." The answer was yes.
"He finds the informal leaders in the community and works with them," Sgt. Claus said.
But Magnus is ready for something different. In January, he will start his new job as chief in Richmond, a job that even police there say will be challenging.
The Richmond force has 51 vacancies, leaving it with only 152 sworn officers to patrol the city's 102,000 residents. The homicide total for the year is already four more than in all of 2004.
In Fargo, Magnus made management and scheduling changes that angered some department veterans and "forced people out of their comfort zones," Sgt. Joel Vettel said. Such shakeups may be harder to accomplish with the Richmond police force, which, unlike Fargo's, is unionized.
Still, said Richmond police Lt. Mark Gagan, "We're really hoping that he'll be able to influence how we do our job. He's going to have to take on some very difficult issues."
Three panels, made up of a cross-section of Richmond, were asked by the city to help select a new police chief. There were six candidates, including a sheriff's captain from Houston and the police chief of El Monte (Los Angeles County). Fargo seemed an unlikely source.
But by the end of the interview process, the panels were impressed with Magnus.
"They liked his community policing practices," City Manager Bill Lindsay said. "He has a good track record, and we liked that he described himself as a 'change agent.' "
Magnus is optimistic that he can bring down the death toll in a city where gunshots ring out nightly. He's so optimistic, in fact, that he bought a house in the Richmond flats and plans to ride his bike to work.
E-mail Stacy Finz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From Fargo to Richmond
Chris Magnus, police chief of Fargo,
N.D., for the past six years, will start his new job next month as chief in
Richmond — a very different place both in demographics and in
the volume of crime.
Land area (square miles) 38 30
People per square mile 2,388.2 3,309.5
Population 91,048 102,318
White 94.2% 31.4%
Black 1.0% 36.1%
Asian 1.6% 12.3%
Foreign-born 4.0% 25.8%
poverty level (1999) 11.8% 16.2%
Violent crime incidents(2004) 45 1,080
Homicides 1 34
Rapes 22 36
Robberies 3 500
Aggravated assaults 19 509
Burglaries 344 1,038
Vehicle thefts 163 2,377
Morgan Quinto “Safest and Most Dangerous cities” survey (2005)
12th safest 11th most
Sources: areaconnect.com, infoplease.com