by Brad Marshland
When Chris Magnus first moved to Richmond, Calif., in 2006, he would hear gunshots at night, sometimes very close to his house. That would be disturbing to anyone, but it was especially so to Magnus, as he had just been hired to be Richmond's new chief of police.
Recent shootings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo.; Cleveland, Ohio; and Madison, Wis., have triggered violent reactions, revealing a deep chasm between many police departments and the communities they purportedly serve. But not so in the San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Richmond: Not only are relationships between the people and the police strong, but the statistics indicate that the policies instituted by Chief Magnus are significantly reducing crime. Violent crime has been dropping nationally for years – down 14.5% since 2004, according to the FBI. In Richmond, it has dropped even faster. Homicides in this city of just over 100,000 are down from 47 in 2007 to just 11 last year.
Since Magnus took over as Chief in Richmond, he has instituted geographic policing, where officers are assigned to specific beats over an extended period of time, sometimes as long as several years. He has also challenged his officers to do more than just respond to calls. Evaluations are now based in part on how much officers engage with and address the residents' top priorities. Back in 2006, for example, despite the high homicide rate, one of the first things residents complained to Magnus about was the number of abandoned vehicles on the streets. While addressing this problem first may have seemed counterintuitive, it went a long way toward building trust. “It sent a very powerful message to residents that we were actually listening to them and were willing to make their priorities our priorities,” Magnus told Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric.
Acting in partnership with the community on such minor matters can have hugely positive effects when it comes to tackling violent crime as well. “Just starting a conversation sometimes leads to surprising results,” says Magnus. As relationships get built, residents are more likely to talk to officers they know and provide tips that either solve or prevent more serious crimes down the road.
Longtime community advocate Kathleen Sullivan has never been afraid to call the command staff when she sees an officer behaving badly. The fact that they listen has changed everything. Now she feels comfortable telling others “Sometimes when you're concerned, you need to call the police. Because they are here to get the bad guy.”
The term “community policing” has become such a buzz phrase that “Pretty much every department, if you ask them, would say they're doing community policing,” says Magnus, “And I think most believe it. But the challenge is: is community policing really policing the community in the way that the community wants to be policed, or is it driven by the police department?” Magnus' approach has been to build partnerships with the community at every opportunity, learning from the residents what their priorities are, in order to define where resources should go.
One thing Sullivan believes the department could do better would be to get out and walk the streets more. The key is to train the officers to view walking and talking to residents not as an added chore, but rather as a means to an end. “You're talking to people in order to get to know them,” Magnus says “to build a relationship that helps you ultimately solve or prevent a crime.”
In the past year, the national wave of protests against excessive use of police force turned violent in many cities, exposing a rift where police departments and the public view each other as adversaries rather than as partners. In Richmond, the demonstrations were peaceful, with the police department command staff engaging community members in dialogue about how policing could be done better. Chief Magnus, who is white, went so far as to hold a “Black Lives Matter” sign. “It seemed to totally represent what we're trying to accomplish,” says Magnus, “which is respect: this idea that we acknowledge that the relationship between police and the African American community, particularly in many cities, has really been at best strained and at worst incredibly difficult for many, many years.”
Magnus took some grief for holding the sign, but he stands by his decision: “It doesn't mean a wholesale endorsement of attacks on police or saying that police are brutal or racist across the board. Of course I don't feel that way. I feel like all lives matter. That's really what community policing should be about.”
Along with reducing crime, Richmond's style of community policing could explain why Richmond's recent protests were peaceful. “The key to the whole thing,” says community advocate Sullivan, “is the more you know who they are, and they know who you are, you respond to policing differently.”
Community policing is not Richmond's only strategy. They have also actively hired for diversity within the department, deployed computer algorithms to help predict where crimes are likely to occur (and allocate resources accordingly), and they have begun testing body cameras on their officers. While some have touted body cameras as a panacea for preventing excessive use of force, Magnus thinks the issue is more complicated.
“First of all,” says Magnus, “cameras don't show everything.” No matter how they're worn by an officer, they don't give a complete picture of what an officer may be seeing or perceiving in any given situation. And yet the public may believe the video will show the whole truth. Second, the whole truth is sometimes hard to look at. “Using force never looks good, even when it's completely appropriate and within policy,” Magnus says. “It's very tough to see somebody on the receiving end of a police baton, even if that is the right tool under the right circumstances to use.” Still, the public wants to see some of the results; they want criminals arrested, and they don't want police officers put in unnecessary danger. “This means one of the challenges we're going to face as police agencies is really helping to educate the public about the use of force. When is it appropriate, in what measure, under what circumstances? How do we do it? How are those decisions made?” And that conversation is only just beginning.
Finally, Magnus sees a real danger to the whole idea of community policing once body cameras get introduced. He believes that officers should not be required to have cameras on at all times, “because I want the public to be able to have positive, proactive conversations with officers that they don't feel are being recorded.” What community policing has so successfully achieved in Richmond may be undermined if lawful residents suddenly feel they are under surveillance.
That said, the Richmond department has begun testing the technology, in part in an effort to learn how cameras might support its broader goals.
Last fall, the Department of Justice asked Chief Magnus to be on a panel of experts looking at protocols, procedures, training and supervision in St. Louis County. His takeaway: “it is critically important we redouble our effort to reconnect police and community at every possible level. None of this is easy. But if we're operating from a position of goodwill, with the goal of building trust, there's really a lot we can accomplish by working together.”