Urban police chiefs typically last only four or five years in office. Chris Magnus’s tenure in Richmond, Ca., lasted twice that long, reports the Washington Monthly. By the time he left the blue-collar city of 110,000 across the bay from San Francisco last year to become chief in Tucson, he had improved public safety by repairing relations with a majority-minority community long estranged from the police. Between 2009 and 2014, killings in Richmond—often gang related—declined five years in a row. Violent crime was 23 percent lower and property crime fell by 40 percent period. By the end of last year, the homicide rate was 50 percent lower than a decade earlier. Unlike colleagues elsewhere, Magnus, 51, was able to overcome union and political opposition from inside and outside the department. He never lost the backing of municipal officials, community leaders, or even progressive activists with little past fondness for cops. He did this while serving as one of the nation’s few gay police chiefs, and the first to participate in a Black Lives Matter protest.
The story of Magnus and Richmond’s remarkable public safety turnaround is both inspiring and instructive. As a rare case study in successful public safety reform, the police department under Magnus generated much favorable media coverage. President Obama welcomed RPD officer Erik Oliver to the White House last year for a briefing on what Richmond was doing right. Attorney General Loretta Lynch visited Richmond for similar information-gathering purposes. Richmond’s experience also reminds us that there are no quick fixes for an arm of local government in need of fundamental repair. If it took progressive city leadership more than a decade to make institutional change there, how long will police reform take in cities lacking such vision and determination?