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A hire that's a cold contrast

To stem its crime rate, Richmond, Calif., turned to the police chief of Fargo, N.D. He's made quite an impact.

January 02, 2007|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

RICHMOND, CALIF. — 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.

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