A hire that's a
To stem its
crime rate, Richmond, Calif., turned to the police chief of Fargo,
N.D. He's made quite an impact.
By Rone Tempest
Times Staff Writer
January 2, 2007
RICHMOND, CALIF. — By the summer of 2005, the murder rate in this
rough refinery town across the bay from San Francisco had reached
the point where the City Council debated declaring a state of
Richmond's undermanned Police Department had trouble just getting
witnesses to come forward, particularly in the tough Iron Triangle
neighborhood, where many of the killings took place. In 2005, police
made arrests in only 13% of the homicide cases they investigated.
"Somebody got shot and killed and 50 people were watching but
'nobody saw nothing,' " recalled City Councilman Tom Butt, a
Richmond architect. The city of 103,000 people was very close to
being a place where murder went unpunished.
In crisis, the city turned for help to the most unlikely of saviors:
the police chief of nearly all-white, nearly violent-crime-free
Fargo is rated one of the safest American cities of its size by the
Morgan Quitno Press, which compiles an annual ranking based on FBI
crime statistics. So far this year, the city, which has a population
of 99,216, has recorded one homicide.
Richmond, which is 36% black, 27% Latino and 21% white, is ranked
among the most dangerous American cities. Last year, only Compton
was rated more violent.
The city hired 45-year-old Chris Magnus, a proponent of community
policing techniques, to run a department battling not only violent
crime but also a chronic manpower shortage and internal racial
A year later, even his initial detractors give credit to the blond
son of a university art professor and a piano instructor, whose
first act when he moved to Richmond was to buy a home in one of the
city's rougher neighborhoods.
Violence continues to plague Richmond, a once-vibrant World War II
shipbuilding center with affluent fringe neighborhoods but a deeply
depressed central core.
But city officials say Magnus' personal approach has built public
trust and dramatically reversed the dismal homicide clearance rate.
In 2006, arrests were made in more than half of the city's 40
"We still have a long way to go, and we are still very dissatisfied
with the amount of violent crime in the community," said City
Manager Bill Lindsay. "Having said that, I think Chief Magnus has
initiated a turnaround."
Since he took the job in December 2005, Magnus has won broad support
for his efforts in identifying individual officers with specific
neighborhoods. Citizens are encouraged to call or e-mail officers
directly with their problems, which can be as minor as an abandoned
car or a broken window.
In July, Magnus reintroduced a classic geographic beat system,
dividing the city into three districts and six beats. He made senior
officers more personally accountable for what happens on their turf.
"The chief gave us voice mail, e-mail and cellphones," said Police
Lt. Mark Gagan. "Instead of calling 911 or the dispatcher, people
have started calling us. We've had several cases recently where
there has been a shooting or a killing and officers got phone calls
from people on their beats telling them who did it or just what
people are saying on the street. Some of that information may not be
usable in court, but it is enormously helpful in our
Like customer-service agents, officers are also encouraged to call
victims and witnesses after a crime has been investigated to ask if
they were satisfied with police performance. Gagan said he recently
called an Iron Triangle resident to thank him for a tip about drug
dealers that led to an arrest. The man gratefully told him the
arrest allowed him and a neighbor to mow their lawns in safety for
the first time in months.
Lt. Enos Johnson, a 32-year African American veteran of the
department, has seen more than a dozen chiefs come and go amid
varying degrees of turmoil. But under Magnus, Johnson said,
"communications are at an all-time high between officers and the
"When he was hired, people asked, 'What does a white guy from Fargo
know about violence in Richmond?' " recalled the Rev. Andre Shumake,
an African American community leader who was on the selection
committee that chose Magnus. "I will say this about him: He has
stuck with everything he said he would do."
A visible presence
A bachelor with a passion for art, dogs and ice hockey,
Magnus decorated his office with Impressionist prints, Detroit
Redwings memorabilia and a large photo of an erupting Mt. St.
Helens. Interviewed recently, he said Richmond's problems were
concentrated: "We are probably talking about 50 to 75 really
challenging individuals who are involved in an overwhelming amount
of the serious violent crime here."
He said he believes winning public confidence is the key to halting
Richmond's descent into mayhem.
To that end, he pledged when he took the job that he would
personally visit the scene of every homicide. After the October
killing of 31-year-old Omar Villalobos outside a burrito stand a few
blocks from Magnus' home, the police chief attended a vigil and
protest march organized by St. Mark's Catholic Church, the
institutional heart of the growing Latino population.
"I really liked the fact that he came to the vigil for the young
man," said Father Ramiro Flores, 39, who said he has noticed a
"difference in the attitudes of the officers" since Magnus took
"People are giving them information now, when before they didn't,"
As word of the police reorganization spreads, recruiting has also
picked up. The 155-officer department is still 21 officers below
what is already funded and 60 short of the force Magnus thinks he
needs. Most neighboring police departments, including those in
Oakland and San Francisco, are also undermanned and competing in the
But Magnus feels that Richmond has an advantage as a medium-size
city. "It's small enough that you can really make a difference," he
said. "We are getting some candidates who see that."
While balancing a personal life that includes membership at the San
Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Magnus regularly attends the
meetings of many of Richmond's neighborhood organizations, often
poking fun at his own roots.
"Even though I am Norwegian," he told the multiracial Richmore
Metropolitan Square Neighborhood Council in his initial meeting with
the group this summer, "it is nice to be in a community where
everyone does not look just like me. Fargo is white, white, white!"
Most days around lunchtime, Magnus dons running shoes, gray cotton
shorts and a T-shirt and jogs through the Iron Triangle district,
one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America. It is so named
because it is enclosed by three rail lines that once served the
long-gone shipbuilding and fruit-packing industries.
"Hey, chief!" Shumake shouted as Magnus jogged past the district's
Nevin Park on a sunny afternoon. "You see that man?" Shumake yelled
at young men and women loitering in front of a corner liquor store.
"That's the police chief."
In October, the Rev. Charles Newsome, president of the National
Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, Shumake and other
community leaders set up "tent cities" in four high-crime
neighborhoods, including Nevin Park, to appeal for an end to
Richmond's violence. They acted at the end of a two-week period in
which there had been 22 shootings.
Magnus welcomed the action as a sign of increased community
involvement in dealing with crime. "We've got to do a better job of
educating the community on how to protect itself," he said. In the
30 days that the tent cities were in place, he noted, there was only
Despite six relatively calm years in Fargo, Magnus got most of his
police experience in Lansing, Mich., a tough Midwestern town where
he earned his master's degree in labor relations at Michigan State
University's School of Criminal Justice.
"Lansing is much more like Richmond than it is like Fargo," he said.
In Lansing, he joined the force as an 18-year-old police dispatcher
and ended up as an administrative captain, working in one of the
city's toughest sections. There, he got a chance to implement the
techniques he'd learned under Michigan State professor Robert
Trojanowicz, one of the pioneers of community policing.
"I learned," he said, "how to do police work one house, one block at
Moving to Fargo in 1999, he said, was a chance to test his hand at
Magnus compares his work now to that of a war-zone surgeon.
"Some people view this as not the most attractive place to work
because of the violence," he said. "That kind of boggles my mind.
When I went into law enforcement, you wanted the challenge of
working in a neighborhood that had a lot of these issues."
Complaints of racism
There are still major frustrations, and he does have his
Recently, six senior officers, all African American, filed
complaints of racism with the California Department of Fair
Employment and Housing. The department has experienced internal
racial conflict since the 1980s, when a group of predominantly white
officers known as "the Cowboys" ran roughshod over the city.
"They brought in a chief from Fargo, N.D., and ever since he got
here the officers have requested that he stop racism and they feel
their requests have fallen on deaf ears and that the chief is
perpetuating it," said Christopher Dolan, an attorney representing
the six officers.
The city has pledged to investigate the claims. Magnus flatly denies
the allegations, which are not shared by other high-ranking African
American officers or endorsed by Guardians of Justice, an
association of black officers.
When Magnus started in Richmond, he distributed a questionnaire
asking sergeants what they considered to be the department's major
problem. Nearly everyone, he said, listed racial divisions.
"As much as I want to say that racial politics are behind us in
Richmond, I don't think it is completely gone," Magnus said. "The
part that remains is the really tough part because there is still a
lot of distrust out there. I think there are still a lot of camps …
that operate around a very racially based agenda."
But Magnus feels he has the full support of City Manager Lindsay, a
Yale and Berkeley graduate who rescued Richmond from bankruptcy and
has installed a multiracial administrative team that includes
several Ivy Leaguers.
Lindsay says the most important hire was Magnus, whom he credits
with a "holistic" approach to solving the city's daunting problems.
"The No. 1 priority of every department in the city, not just the
Police Department, is to reduce the violent-crime rate in the city
of Richmond," Lindsay said.
Magnus says he and his force are working on it.
"We are looking for people who want to make a difference," he said.
"We need cops who are willing to really be engaged with the
community, who aren't afraid to get out of the car and talk to
people. In my mind, there is no question that we will turn this
place around. It is just a question of how long it takes."