Former Richmond Police chief is Biden’s pick to head Customs and Border Protection

Former Richmond, Calif. Police Chief Chris Magnus — widely considered a progressive law enforcement leader and a critic of the Trump administration’s immigration policies — will be President Biden’s nomination to head the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country, the New York Times first reported.

Magnus, who has been the chief of the Tucson Police Department in Arizona since he left Richmond in 2015, is reportedly Biden’s pick to be commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

If confirmed, Magnus would take on the controversial role at a time when the agency is grappling with a wave of border crossings: unaccompanied teenagers and children have arrived in record numbers.

He’s had a complicated relationship with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Union officials for the Border Patrol called Magnus a “a ultra-liberal social engineer who was given a badge and a gun by the City of Tucson” in a 2018 Facebook post and said then that Magnus was “preaching anarchy and encouraging police officers to commit dereliction of duty.”

Magnus had criticized the Trump administration’s immigration policies and approach. In a 2017 op-ed for the New York Times, he urged that the Justice Department focus on policing reforms supported by police chiefs instead of “the changes it wants to make — to force local police officers to cooperate much more closely with federal immigration authorities,” which, he said, “will compromise public safety by reducing community confidence in law enforcement.”

Magnus had a reputation for being a “strong community partner” while in Richmond, said John Gioia, the Contra Costa County Supervisor representing Richmond and other parts of West Contra Costa County.

“Based on his record, he will bring a humane approach to border security,” Gioia said. “That’s who he is as a person and professionally.”

He added, “This is a high visibility, controversial job — it’s going to take someone who is strong in law enforcement but also humane and understands the complexities of these issues.”

Magnus ascended to national prominence while chief of the Richmond Police Department after photos of him holding a Black Lives Matter sign at a Richmond protest went viral.

But for Richmond, he had seemed like an unusual hire, at first.

White and openly gay, Magnus was the chief of police in Fargo, North Dakota when he was chosen in 2006 to lead the the police force in Richmond — a majority Latino and Black city.

He bought a home in Richmond and got to work making changes in the department including assigning police officers to specific beats long-term, instead of rotating them annually, in order to promote better relationships with residents and with community groups.

Richmond’s homicide rate fell from 40 in 2006 when Magnus came to Richmond, to 12 in 2014.

His tenure there was not without controversy among police officers. A lawsuit by seven high-ranking Black officers claimed that Magnus and his deputy chief discriminated against them, but after a trial in 2012, a Contra Costa County jury exonerated them both.

But local leaders and community groups have often praised Magnus’ efforts toward changing the culture of the previously fraught Richmond Police Department to one promoting transparency and community relationships.

He encouraged sharing data with the public to increase transparency within the community about police activity and implemented then-sophisticated audio-detection systems to have officers respond to gunfire even before people could call 911.

Richmond Chief of Police Chris Magnus stands with demonstrators along Macdonald Ave. to protest the Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths during a peaceful demonstration in Richmond, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group) 

After taking the police chief job in Tucson, he spoke out publicly against the Trump administration’s approach to immigration.

But he has faced some criticism in Tucson, too. Despite being a critic of anti-immigration policies and stating his support for residents no matter their immigration status, he joined other city leaders in Tucson in opposing a ballot initiative that would have limited the circumstances under which police could ask people about their immigration status.

The initiative, which was rejected by voters, would have threatened federal resources to the city, Magnus argued in an opinion piece he wrote for the Arizona Daily Star, noting that “many of the purported protections, such as limiting police questioning to only those specific matters related to traffic stops or criminal investigations, are already required by department policy.”

Last year, Magnus offered his resignation in the wake of the death of a man in police custody after videos were circulated of police restraining the man on the ground for 12 minutes as he asked for water.

City officials, however, rallied around Magnus and denied his resignation offer. Mayor Regina Romero at the time said Magnus had “brought forward-thinking changes to (Tucson Police) policies, practices and trainings, and has built strong relationships with our community”.

If confirmed as the Customs and Border Protection commissioner, Magnus will oversee a much larger law enforcement agency. The agency has 61,500 employees.

He and other Biden-appointed officials would work under Alejandro Mayorkas, the first immigrant to serve as the Secretary of Homeland Security.

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Author: Annie Sciacca

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