A hire that’s a cold contrast

Times Staff Writer

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 emergency.

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, N.D.

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 divisions.

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 homicides.

“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 investigations.”

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 community.”

“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 over.

“People are giving them information now, when before they didn’t,” Flores said.

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 same market.

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 one murder.

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 a time.”

Moving to Fargo in 1999, he said, was a chance to test his hand at command.

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 critics.

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.”



Two extremes


Richmond’s new police chief came from Fargo, N.D., a city with few crimes.

Crime rates per 10,000 people


Richmond (pop. 103,500)


National average


Fargo, N.D. (pop. 91,600)


Murder--Richmond: 40/National Avg.:6/Fargo:2 | Forcible rape--Richmond: 34/National Avg.:32/Fargo:46 | Robbery--Richmond: 511/National Avg.:141/Fargo:12 | Aggravated assault--Richmond: 556/National Avg.:291/Fargo:54


Racial breakdown


Richmond | Black: 36% | Latino:27% | White:21% | Asian:12% | Other:4%


Fargo | Black: 1.6% | Latino:1.5% | White:91.8% | Asian:2.1% | Other:3.0%


Source: FBI 2005 Uniform Crime Report, city of Richmond