Fatal Errors, Part 3: Police Reformer — or Cover-Up Artist?

Chief Magnus reduced crime, but record marred by killings of unarmed men

Tucson, Chief of Police, Chris Magnus
Tucson Chief of Police Chris Magnus. Photo credit: City of Tuscon and City of Tucson
Reading Time: 8 minutes

This is Part 3 of a three-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Chris Magnus could have been a poster child for the modern-day police chief: progressive, reform-oriented, effective — and openly gay.

Many credited him for implementing a community policing model in Richmond, CA, that professionalized the force and significantly reduced crime. Magnus even held up a Black Lives Matter sign at a Richmond demonstration in 2014, protesting the killings of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.

But then there’s the other Magnus: self-serving, a hypocrite who, for well over two months, covered up police suffocation of a man in custody, and years earlier defended another killing by a police officer that was eventually ruled to be unwarranted. He also bullied critics, including a Tucson, AZ, City Council member and a California newspaper reporter who began investigating a two-year-old police shooting.

Will the real Chris Magnus please stand up?

Magnus had been police chief in Fargo, ND, “one of the safest and whitest places in America, a city then averaging only one homicide every two years,” according to Washington Monthly. So he seemed an unlikely choice in 2006 for the top job in Richmond, a hardscrabble, high-crime, mostly nonwhite community in the Bay Area. Richmond’s homicide rate in 2005 to 2006 made it one of the most dangerous cities in the US on a per capita basis.

But he achieved results. Washington Monthly’s profile, published in late 2016, concluded that Magnus “had greatly improved public safety by repairing relations with a majority-minority community long estranged from the police.”

From 2009 to 2014, “killings in Richmond — often gang related — declined five years in a row,” the article said. “Violent crime in general was 23 percent lower, and property crime fell by 40 percent during that period. By the end of 2015, the city’s homicide rate was 50 percent lower than a decade earlier.”

The department adopted a community policing model, assigning officers to neighborhoods for longer periods of time so they could get to know residents. “They are in and out of businesses, nonprofits, churches, a wide variety of community organizations, and they come to be seen as a partner in crime reduction,” Magnus said.

To set a personal example, Magnus bought a home in Richmond, close enough to bicycle to work. Late at night, he could hear police sirens and the occasional gunshot. By 2014, about 60 percent of the department’s officers were from minority groups, and the department had 26 women on its payroll.

The same year, he married Terrance Cheung, the mayor’s former chief of staff, in an event attended by a congressman, state legislators, and other heavy hitters. “Despite the big-name guest list, the wedding and reception were simple and elegant, which was in keeping with the couple’s low-key style,” police Capt. Mark Gagan told a reporter. “You would look around at some of the guests here and expect the couple to be a bit pretentious,” Gagan said. “But I don’t think I know two people who are more modest than Chris and Terrance.”

In December 2014, a Richmond youth group organized a downtown vigil lasting 4 1/2 hours, the length of time that Michael Brown lay in the street in Ferguson, MO, after being shot by a police officer. About 100 people attended, including Magnus. When a young protestor handed him a hand-painted sign declaring that “Black Lives Matter,” Magnus displayed it to passing traffic.

In the years from 2008 to 2014, Richmond police averaged less than one officer-involved shooting of any kind, none fatal. “Use of Deadly Force by Police Disappears on Richmond Streets,” read a newspaper headline on September 6, 2014.

A week later, everything changed. Richmond police Officer Wallace Jensen fatally shot 24-year-old Richard “Pedie” Perez after a tussle outside a liquor store; Magnus rushed to defend his officer the same day, and it would take four years for a police review commission to conclude the opposite: 

“The testimony of Officer Jensen attempting to justify his use of lethal force was inconsistent with the evidence presented,” the commission said. “Jensen initiated physical violence directed at Mr. Perez despite Perez posing no threat to Jensen or anyone else at the scene.”

By then, Magnus had departed from Richmond, taking a $22,000 pay cut (to $200,000 annually) to become police chief in Tucson, AZ, even though the department was five times larger. The Tucson police union had opposed his appointment, despite its candidate scorecard crediting Magnus in Richmond with “reduced crime, increased police staffing, increased officer compensation, and improved community relations.” The union didn’t like Magnus’s participation in the BLM protest, or his decision to replace the commander of the department’s internal affairs division with a civilian.

Despite the union opposition, Magnus was named Tucson’s chief in January 2016. His biography on the department’s web site emphasizes his “continuing commitment to improve services for victims of domestic and sexual violence, addressing community corrections issues, focusing on how police respond to people suffering with mental illness, and supporting a myriad of youth programs.”

But then came the agonizing death of Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez in Tucson police custody on April 21, 2020 (See Part 1 and Part 2 of this series). The police chief sat on the case for more than two months before informing top city officials and showing them the shocking video, in mid-June. He didn’t reveal the case to the public until a week later.

In the meantime, George Floyd was killed on May 25 in Minneapolis, igniting national and worldwide protests against police brutality. In a Twitter post the next day, Magnus described Floyd’s death as “indefensible use of force that good officers everywhere are appalled by.” The following week, on May 31, he wrote a guest column in the Arizona Daily Star titled, “What Happened to George Floyd Is Indefensible.”

At a June 24 news conference to finally announce Ingram-Lopez’s death, Magnus extended an olive branch, offering his “sympathy and regrets” to the family of the victim. But then he made a surprise announcement — offering to resign — which upstaged his own presentation of the video, medical examiner’s report, and internal personnel investigation.

Magnus also blamed the coronavirus, saying the “incident took place at the start of the most intense period of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I believe the notification process to the public could have been missed, at least in part, due to some of the chaos that was going on during that period. But nonetheless, public notification should have happened.”

National media focused on the resignation offer, diverting attention from the death of Ingram-Lopez and what Magnus acknowledged were two “serious missteps”: his delay informing the public, and the failure of police leaders to review body camera footage in a timely manner.

City Council member Lane Santa Cruz commented afterward: “I was thrown off about his offer to resign. … The news became about him resigning and not about Carlos Adrian, which felt really like a trick move that I didn’t appreciate. But my sense was, if he wants to leave, that’s on him. That’s not a choice for us. This is our home and now we have to deal with this.”

By the following day, the mayor and other top city officials had expressed support for the police chief. “Under Chief Magnus’ leadership, our police department has developed into one of the most progressive in the country,” said City Manager Michael Ortega, who declined to accept the resignation. “I believe Chris’s leadership is exactly what we need during these difficult times.”

The deeply hurt and angry family of Ingram-Lopez also called for Magnus to stay, but not as an endorsement of him or his police force. “The easy way out for Chief Magnus was to resign,” said Ingram-Lopez’s aunt, Diana Chuffe. “We want him to stay on and we want him to deal with the mess that is in the Tucson Police Department. It does us no good for him to walk away.”

Many questions remain about the death of Ingram-Lopez and the department’s subsequent response, but the chief isn’t discussing most of them. For this series of articles, WhoWhatWhy sent Magnus a list of 14 detailed questions about the Ingram-Lopez case. He declined to answer 13 of them, saying answers could be found in the September 20 findings of a review board.

He was oddly evasive in his response to the 14th question, about why he had permitted the three officers to quit before facing an internal review that could lead to their dismissal — a common tactic for police chiefs trying to gloss over problematic officers.   

Jonathan Jackson, Ryan Starbuck, and Samuel Routledge

Jonathan Jackson, Ryan Starbuck, and Samuel Routledge resigned from the Tucson Police Department rather than face possible termination. Photo credit: Tucson Police Department

“Like any employer, we cannot prevent our personnel from resigning any time they want,” Magnus said. “It was not a question of them ‘being allowed to resign.’” 

The review board report noted, however, that “three of the officers involved had resigned from the TPD rather than going through the process of being terminated due to their actions.”

Despite generally favorable local and national news coverage in both Tucson and Richmond, Magnus and his supporters have openly targeted critics, including elected officials and reporters. 

According to longtime human rights activist and attorney Isabel Garcia, the Tucson Police Officers Association (TPOA) and the firefighters union invested thousands of dollars in an unsuccessful campaign to defeat the two Latinx women running for mayor and city council in the last election, Regina Romero and Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz saw the video of Ingram-Lopez’s death a few days before the June 24 press conference. She posted on Facebook that it was a “horrible incident of police violence.”

TPOA responded with this statement: “Unfortunately, Council Member Santa Cruz chose to issue a false statement about the incident. She is playing fast and loose with the facts, and she knows it. … There was no force used in the incident.”

Alba Jaramillo is executive director of Arizona Justice for Our Neighbors, and a community organizer for immigration rights. Jaramillo and Garcia accused TPOA and its supporters of smearing and harassing Santa Cruz through a nasty social media campaign on Facebook. They say the police union has mobilized its network to prevent Santa Cruz and other elected officials from questioning or speaking out about Ingram-Lopez.

Years earlier, award-winning journalist Karina Ioffee said she was targeted by Magnus in response to her critical reporting on the Perez case directly following the deadly incident. On May 8, 2015, her story carried the headline “Fatal Richmond Shooting Continues to Strain Relationship Between Residents And Police.” (See Part 1 of this series).

She included quotes from an eyewitness who countered the official narrative, and from community members critical of how the case was being handled.

“Magnus asked me for a meeting,” recalled Ioffee. “When I arrived, along with my editor, we were met with at least eight of the highest ranking members of the [Richmond] police department, lieutenants, their assistant chief, PIO [public information officer], etc., all sitting in a small conference room. I believe they were trying to intimidate us.”

In recent email correspondence, Ioffee described the meeting. “What I can tell you was that the Richmond Police Department was not happy that I was ‘dredging up an old case’ two years after it happened,” she said. “I don’t remember exactly what they asked for, possibly to retract the story, but I had a good editor … and he stood by me the entire time, defending my reporting and calmly telling these bullies that the story involved many sources, was solidly researched … and would not be retracted.

“I do believe I was punished for writing about a case that blemished the department and Chris Magnus’s legacy and it made it even harder to report on the department from that point on,” Ioffee said. “But in my experience, that’s how police departments and unions act. Once you’re viewed as a ‘traitor’ by writing a negative story, they turn against you. There was no desire to uncover the truth of what happened and bring the responsible officer to justice.”

In Tucson, community organizers like Jessica Rodriguez are unwilling to accept superficial reforms or fake reformers. “Chief Magnus is really good at creating an image,” Rodriguez said. “There are a few times where he showed up in Tucson carrying a Black Lives Matter sign. He takes pride in being a gay chief of police. That’s the personal image.”

“When it comes down to his reform image, he wants to make his department look different from the others. But now that everything is coming to light, it’s not different.”

The author of this series, Dennis J. Bernstein, is an experienced investigative journalist and host/producer of Flashpoints, syndicated on public and community radio stations across the US and Canada. Bernstein is the recipient of many awards for his work, including the 2015 Pillar Award in Broadcast Journalism, and his articles have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines.

Additional reporting for today’s story provided by Ken Yale, a social justice activist and educator.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Daniel Arauz / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), the Lopez family, the Perez family, and C-SPAN.

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