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The White Cop Who Embraced #BlackLivesMatter and Saved Richmond

How a cop whose last job was policing the streets of Fargo, North Dakota, turned around a town that had a reputation as one of the most violent places in America.
Housing construction in Richmond, California, in 1943. (Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Public Domain)

Housing construction in Richmond, California, in 1943. (Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Public Domain)

On December 9, a photograph of a police action in Richmond, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area got sucked into the social media centrifuge and spread across the Internet. The image in question was snapped a few minutes after half a dozen cops arrived on the scene of a protest against national police violence. In the image, the Richmond chief of police, a blond haired, blue-eyed, middle-aged white man stands alongside a diverse line of protesters, holding a sign that reads “Black Lives Matter.”

In the weeks since the two grand juries decided not to indict white police officers in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, tens of thousands of people have protested against police brutality in cities across the nation. And some public figures joined the fray: Several St. Louis Rams football players ran onto the field with their hands up in honor of Michael Brown; actor Samuel L. Jackson called on celebrities who participated in the viral Ice Bucket Challenge to film themselves singing a song of solidarity.

But for law enforcement officials it is more complicated, and reacting to the protests is sticky business. (The rift between the New York police union and mayor Bill DeBlasio, after the tragic and senseless shootings of two officers, is case in point.) So it’s little wonder that the image of Chief Chris Magnus went viral. Here was a white police chief in a city that is largely black, known for violence, standing with the protestors. And in Richmond, in response, two things happened: The Richmond Police Officers Association accused the chief of breaking the law by making a political statement while in uniform; and Richmond residents rallied around Magnus. At a recent city council meeting dozens of residents decried the union’s accusation.

"[Technology] lets us be more surgically precise in who we go after. We’ve gotten away from the broad, stop-and-frisk approach and are focusing on people that really commit the serious crimes."

“Standing up for the lives of citizens in this community as a law enforcement professional is the most upstanding position you can take,” Kathleen Sullivan, a longtime African American community activist, said during the meeting; “Thank you chief, we love you.” Richmond’s mayor and an ethnically diverse group of council-members also publicly backed Magnus.

The outpouring of community support has deep roots. Since Magnus became chief in 2006, two remarkable things have happened: violent crime is down an estimated 33 percent, and property crimes are down 36 percent. At the same time, he has curbed the use of force by police.

Since 2007 only one resident has been shot and killed by police: 24-year-old Richard Perez was slain outside of a liquor store during a scuffle with an officer. The incident occurred this September, shortly after Michael Brown was killed. Afterwards, Magnus released a statement saying he was committed to the “greatest degree of transparency possible involving this critical incident." While riots erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, over Brown's death, Magnus was invited to—and attended—Perez’s memorial service in Richmond.

Richmond residents aren’t the only people who have noticed the city’s shifting tides. The U.S. Justice Department recently tapped Magnus to investigate police procedures in Ferguson following the shooting of Michael Brown, and a few months ago he was invited to Washington, D.C., to discuss the progress his officers have made in fighting crime in Richmond. So here’s the question: How did a white, gay cop whose last job was policing the streets of Fargo, North Dakota, turn around a town that had a reputation as one of the most violent cities in America?

Richmond is about 16 miles, as the crow flies, north of San Francisco and is nestled between the brackish waters of the San Francisco Bay and the soft rolling hills of the Pacific Coast ranges. The Mediterranean climate, miles of coastline, and easy access to the greater Bay Area should make the city, with its population of roughly 110,000, prime real estate. Instead, for a long time a dark cloud has hovered over the working-class town.

The city is home to one of Chevron’s largest oil refineries that sprawls along much of Richmond’s waterfront, and occasionally catches fire. Most Bay Area residents know the town as simply a place to pass through between Berkeley and upscale Marin County. When the town has made national headlines, it has often been for brutal crimes, the most notorious being the 2009 gang rape of a teenage girl at Richmond High School during a homecoming dance.

For much of the 1990s and 2000s, Richmond received a perennial mention on the FBI’s most dangerous cities in America list. In one two-week span in the summer of 2005, a stream of brazen daytime shootings left eight people dead and many more wounded. By the end of the year Richmond recorded 40 killings, making it the second most violent city in California behind Compton. In response, the city council considered declaring a state of emergency. Some residents pleaded for the National Guard to be deployed to the area, because close to 90 percent of murders went unsolved and unpunished that year.

“It was just complete chaos,” says Reverend Andre Shumake, a police chaplain who visits violent crime scenes to console families of victims. “I would see these young black men with their brains blown out, guts spilled out into the street. What do you say to a mother who’s running out and sees her baby boy on the street with a tarp over him.”

The department responded to the extreme violence in the 1990s and early 2000s by teaching police to be harder and tougher. “My training officers said you better be able to fistfight, you better be the loudest barking dog,” recalls RPD Captain Mark Gagan, who joined the force two decades ago. “Some officers were fighting crime like it was a big football game.”

In 2005, as interim Chief Terry Hudson was set to retire, the city began searching for a new top cop, and eventually turned to an unlikely candidate: Chris Magnus. A soft-spoken proponent of community policing—a strategy of building ties with the local community and residents, and engaging them as part of the solution to crime. Magnus, who had spent six years as police chief in Fargo, was ready for a new challenge. “I was looking to see if some of these same things I believed in about community policing would work in a place where there was a lot more violence,” Magnus recalls. In fact, Richmond was a city that had 20 times more homicides, 10 times as many auto thefts, and six times more assaults and robberies than Fargo. But Magnus was undeterred: “One of the great things about Richmond is that it has the problems and challenges of a big city, but it’s small enough that you can try a lot of different things,” he says.

How did a white, gay cop whose last job was policing the streets of Fargo, North Dakota, turn around a town that had a reputation as one of the most violent cities in America?

In February 2006, as one of his first acts as the new chief, Magnus went to what is called the Iron Triangle, one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods, and asked residents how the police department could make it safer. He forged relations with violence prevention groups and encouraged cops to be in touch with victims of crime, and give them updates on investigations. He was met with the reservations of residents and officers alike who questioned if a white man from a small mid-western town could handle the job of chief in a in a mostly Black and Latino city with a large religious population.

“Magnus admitted that he didn’t have all the answers but said he was willing to work with the community to identify solutions,” Shumake says. “If we were going to get results we needed change, and Chris Magnus was definitely a change.”

At first it seemed like the naysayers were right. Violence continued to spiral out of control. Magnus’ second year on the job—2007—was the deadliest since 1994,with 47 killings. In 2009, 47 more people were murdered. But in 2010, things started to shift. Magnus had spent many hours forging relationships with community groups; he had fired problem officers, re-organized patrol beats so cops work the same neighborhoods more regularly, and trained police to defuse tense situations without firearms. He also invested in a war chest of high-tech crime fighting gadgets that have helped reduce crime.

The past five years have been some of the safest in Richmond’s recent history. Pretty much all serious crimes are down, and the city is on track for 2014 to have the city’s lowest homicide count in 30 years. By December 28, there had been a total of 11 murdered—not including the officer-involved shooting. A high number, but progress for Richmond.

Magnus gives the officers and the community the credit for the decline in violent crime rates. “We’ve made real progress in building relationships between the police and community in this city,” he says. “Those relationships have helped build trust and engage people in crime reduction efforts.”

One of the most active community-police partnerships is Ceasefire, a coalition of clergy, service providers, activists, and law enforcement. Formed in 2011, the ethnically diverse group offers services to people at risk of committing or falling victim to gun violence. If potential offenders decline help from Ceasefire, police get involved.

Group members also go on what are known as weekly peace walks, spending roughly an hour traveling some of Richmond’s most troubled streets. On a crisp night last November, dozens of pastors, activists, and residents convened at the North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church for the weekly Ceasefire walk. The marchers turned on small electric candles, formed a single line, and walked toward North Richmond, one of the most notorious parts of the city (Over the past decade the unincorporated community of 3,700 has averaged a homicide rate twice as high as Detroit—the nation’s deadliest city.)

The rules of the walk are: Everyone walks in pairs; no one leaves the crowd; and participants only hand out informational pamphlets to interested bystanders. “We let them know we love them, care about them, and want them alive and free,” says lead organizer Tamisha Walker.

As the Ceasefire participants entered a housing project called Las Deltas, they passed by five black men and one woman sitting in lawn chairs. Music was blaring from nearby parked cars. The smell of marijuana lingered in the air. “Y’all hold up,” one of the men yelled. Dana Keith Mitchell, an African American pastor at North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church, walked over to the man. After a brief exchange, the two parted ways with a hug.

“We love y’all,” the pastor said, after handing him pamphlets.

“We love y’all too,” he yelled back. “Alive and free!”

When asked if Ceasefire could have existed prior to Magnus, Tamisha Walker lets out a deep, long laugh. “No,” she says bluntly. “It took a long time for me to trust law enforcement. I grew up in Richmond, I didn’t have the best relations with police. But Chief Magnus has the ability to know when he needs help and he receives the community well.”

"There are underlying conditions—entrenched poverty, unemployment, lack of services for people in re-entry—that continue to exist in Richmond that are bigger than what any police departments can solve."

Resident Bennie Singleton, whose family was one of the many that migrated to the city from the segregated south during World War II, adds, “I’m not afraid to walk anywhere in this city anymore.”

But relationship-building hasn’t been the chief’s only change: Magnus has also invested in an arsenal of crime fighting gadgets including surveillance cameras, license plate readers, police body cameras, gunshot tracking devices, and crime predicting software. As a result, Richmond is one of the most technologically advanced police departments in California. “[Technology] lets us be more surgically precise in who we go after,” Magnus says. “We’ve gotten away from the broad, stop-and-frisk approach and are focusing on people that really commit the serious crimes.”

In 2013, the chief lobbied for $50,000 to purchase PredPol—a computer program that allows cops to practice what they call predictive policing. The software uses an algorithm that scours through past crime data and forecasts when and where future property crimes will most likely occur. The program is based on a simple theory: Thieves are creatures of habit and will return to places they’ve struck before.

The technology also encourages a level of community engagement that would have been impossible 10 years ago. At the beginning of a Saturday morning shift, Richmond police sergeant Nicole Abetkov turns on the computer in her cramped patrol vehicle and scans a list of addresses. The locations are generated by predictive policing, and each represents a two-and-a-half-square-block area where robberies, burglaries, and car thefts, according to the data, are most likely to transpire.*

Abetkov goes to the first address on the list, which is in the middle-class enclave of Point Richmond. While one of Richmond’s safer neighborhoods, the system detects a recent rash in auto thefts, muggings, and robberies in the area. She parks her car and steps onto the street. Before she’s even on the sidewalk a man greets her with a kiss on the cheek. “You working today,” he asks. “Oh, obviously,” he says, pointing at her uniform. Abetkov smiles. She has been a Richmond police officer for 15 years and, she says, and friendly interactions like this have become common.

Abetkov continues walking through the neighborhood. She chats with pedestrians, but also keeps watch for any suspicious behavior. When on a predictive policing mission, even things slightly out of the ordinary catch her eye. The presumption is that her presence in the area could deter criminals, while also showing community members that police are responding to recent spikes in crime.

“If someone wants to rob a home bad enough they’re going to do it,” Abetkov says. “But if we go to the right places and show enough of a presence, we might be able to change some of [the criminals’] minds.” Years ago, Abetkov says, officers struggled to even respond to crimes in progress. “You’d barely have enough time to stop and use the bathroom.”

After 15 minutes in Point Richmond, the lieutenant heads to the Santa Fe neighborhood, also listed in the predictive policing data. She passes a junked car with two flat tires. Clothes are pressed against the window and luggage affixed to the roof. Scanning the plates in her patrol vehicle, Abetkov explains, “What do you think someone living in their car does? Drugs, breaks into homes, prostitutes. It might not seem like much of an issue, but it could lead to bigger things.”

With violent crime down, officers have more time to deal with minor offenses, like junked cars. At a recent Compstat meeting, where police discuss crime trends, Magnus emphasized the importance of tackling such quality-of-life issues. “If we’re going to say we’re responsive to community concerns, these are the sorts of cases we have to put some time into solving,” he told a group of roughly two dozen officers, commanders, prosecutors, and city employees sitting around a large table, coffee cups scattered among them.

Much of the meeting was spent discussing the city’s enormous problem of car theft. Over the past decade roughly 20,000 cars have been pinched in the city—one vehicle for every six residents. In 2012, Richmond garnered the dubious title as auto-theft capital of the nation, according to FBI statistics.

“We can confidently say car thieves tend to be young-adult repeat offenders,” says Nicole Freeman, a department crime analyst. “We picked one guy up who stole four cars in the last month and has a warrant out in Fresno. He’s serving a 30-day sentence.”

Magnus was surprised by the lenient punishment, but under California’s new sentencing requirements, implemented in 2011 in response to the problem of overcrowded prisons, most car thieves receive short sentences. He asked the group, “Are there any alternatives to incarceration that could discourage people?” For the most part the people in the room came up empty. For now the department is relying on Automated License Plate Readers to quell auto theft. The cameras can photograph tens of thousands of license plates a day and check if they have been reported stolen. If there’s a match the system alerts police. Since the cameras were purchased in 2013, car theft has dropped considerably. But the scanners have invoked ire from some civil libertarians who believe the technology infringes on people’s privacy. The city has already stockpiled a database tens of millions of photographed license plates. The concern is that with the information police could potentially use the photos to map out residents' everyday movements.

In fact, many of Magnus’ crime-fighting technologies come with issues—and detractors. The efficacy of predictive policing depends on people reporting crimes, and the algorithm overlooks neighborhoods hesitant to call police. Since surveillance cameras are hard to move, they become less useful once crooks figure out their locations. And Magnus himself worries that police body cameras, which the department is rolling out this January, could create a barrier between officers and residents if not used carefully. “I don’t want the cameras to become an impediment to people having proactive, friendly conversations out in the community,” he says. “The hardest part is building a policy and procedure for how they are going to be used.”

There’s also not much hard evidence that hi-tech policing works. “People say [it’s] effective, but we don’t really know,” says University of California-Berkeley criminologist Barry Krisberg, referring to predictive policing. “Cities doing comp stat and data analysis have experienced crime drops, but cities doing none of that have experienced equal declines.”

Magnus is quick to agree that technology isn’t a panacea. He knows that while crime is down in Richmond, it can still erupt. Since the beginning of 2014, 2,720 gunshots were recorded in the city by the gun-tracking system ShotSpotter, an average of about seven a day. Earlier in the year six people were shot—one fatally—within a 48-hour window. Five of the victims were Richmond High School students.

“No one is saying this is mission accomplished here,” Magnus says. “There are underlying conditions—entrenched poverty, unemployment, lack of services for people in re-entry—that continue to exist in Richmond that are bigger than what any police departments can solve. But the overall trend line is moving in the right direction. There are occasional setbacks and spikes but we have a better set of relationships now to address some of those problems.”

*UPDATE — December 31, 2014: We originally wrote that Nicole Abetkov is a police lieutenant. She is a sergeant.