Meet the Police Chief Who's Bravely Protesting Police Brutality

Richmond California Police Chief Chris Magnus held "Black Lives Matters" sign while wearing his uniform.
Photo by The Richmond Police Department, via Facebook

This past Tuesday, as the mayor and top city officials in Berkeley, California, were deciding to postpone that evening's City Council meeting to avoid a confrontation with protesters over clashes with police in demonstrations over police brutality, top officials in nearby Richmond did something unexpected.

Police Chief Chris Magnus, Deputy Chief Allwyn Brown, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, and three City Council members all joined a similar protest on a major city thoroughfare to underscore that they understood the issues at stake and were listening to their community, which has one of region's most ethnically diverse populations.

They stood with protesters for four and a half hours, the length of time that Michael Brown's body lay on the pavement in Ferguson, Missouri, after the unarmed black man was shot and killed by a white officer.

"I spoke with my command staff and we agreed it would be nice to convey our commitment to peaceful protest and that black and brown lives do matter," said Magnus, whose remarks were widely quoted.

""We get the conversation about the use or force, we get it," said Brown on Tuesday. "This is an opportunity for all police departments, including ours, to look inward and examine our approaches and get better."

But in the days that followed, that looking inward has prompted surprising criticism from inside Richmond police ranks.

The small city's police union complained that Magnus broke the law by appearing in uniform at a protest. One writer commenting on a local website said that he did not think many rank-and-file cops would be pleased to see their chief standing with protesters.

Magnus responded extensively on the department's Facebook page on Friday, saying, "All of us in the policing profession have a ways to go to assure residents of color they will be fairly treated by the justice system, especially given some of their past experiences. To deny this is simply to deny reality."

The Tuesday protest prompted glowing local TV coverage, where reporters have said that for once, police and protesters are not facing each other down. There's also been more cynical comments on local blogs, with little discussion of the issues surrounding the policies and practices that prompt officers to rely on excessive force–such as an undercover California Highway Patrol detective who pulled a gun on protesters during a march this week.

Whether or not one choses to believe or question the chief's veracity, it is notable that he is making an effort to de-escalate tensions in his community, which contrasts with this past week's clashes between protesters and police in nearby Oakland and Berkeley.

Here is Chief Magnus' latest statement in full, as posted on their Facebook page:

"Thank you if you shared your views about my involvement as Police Chief in a recent community protest event sponsored by Richmond’s RYSE Youth Center. This protest highlighted many young people’s and other residents’ concerns about police conduct, as well as how minorities in particular are treated by the police. Several members of my command staff and I attended this peaceful protest which involved about 150 Richmond residents.

"Although we had adequate personnel ready–and were fully prepared–if the protest was “hijacked” by individuals or groups who might use tactics that would be harmful to the community, there were absolutely no problems. Several captains, both Deputy Chiefs, and I mingled with crowd, answered questions, and explained our commitment to treating people fairly regardless of their age or race. We also pledged continued transparency and communication in our dealings with the public. We knew many of the people at the protest from our ongoing work in the community and we were impressed with the protesters’ willingness to engage with us in a positive manner.

"At one point, I was asked by a young person of color to hold a sign that said, “Black Lives Matter.” I agreed because I wanted to demonstrate that our police department really is serious about building stronger relationships with communities of color. This wasn’t intended to be a “political” statement or a way of suggesting any other lives (regardless of a person’s race) are unimportant to us. It was a important commitment of goodwill to acknowledge that we understand many minority individuals don’t trust the police and that we want to change this.

"I am very proud of my highly diverse and community-oriented police officers. I think Richmond officers work hard, are very dedicated, and care about the people they serve. That said, I also believe all of us in the policing profession have a ways to go to assure residents of color they will be fairly treated by the justice system, especially given some of their past experiences. To deny this is simply to deny reality.

"I thought we had some great conversations and interactions at the protest, but this needs to be just the starting point for how we work together in the future. Anyone who thinks the frustrations many minority members of our communities have towards the police are only based on a small number of high profile cases from around the country are fooling themselves. Our communities and the various components of the larger criminal justice system (not just the police) have some tough issues to face. Police work is very challenging, but looking at these tough issues through the lens of “us versus them” will simply lead to more confrontations and greater misunderstandings. Taking a “bunker mentality” instead of reaching out to each other is in my estimation a big mistake.

"I understand and respect the opinions of those who disagree with me. I realize some officers and other folks may have been offended by my actions. I’m not happy about that, but I continue to believe our decision to engage with our residents in way we did was the right thing to do. Thank you for considering my perspective on this matter. I wish everyone the very best for the upcoming holidays."

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).

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