Fallout grows over Calif. chief's participation in protest

A week after photos of him holding a sign with the hashtag "BlackLivesMatter" at a protest went viral, Richmond chief is still grappling with the fallout

By Robert Rogers
Contra Costa Times

RICHMOND, Calif. — One week after photos of him holding a sign with the hashtag "BlackLivesMatter" at a peaceful local protest went viral on social media, Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus is still grappling with the fallout — including accusations from his department's police union that he broke the law — but says he has no regrets.

"It wasn't the easiest statement to make," Magnus said by phone Monday morning, "but it was the right thing to do."

In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014, Richmond Chief of Police Chris Magnus stands with demonstrators along Macdonald Ave. in Richmond, Calif.
In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014, Richmond Chief of Police Chris Magnus stands with demonstrators along Macdonald Ave. in Richmond, Calif. (AP Image)

Since the small protest, Magnus has been flooded with more than 300 emails, dozens of phone calls and a flurry of messages on Twitter and Facebook. He estimated that more than 70 percent of the responses have been in support.

But his foray into a heated national debate, which he did while in uniform, has drawn criticism from his own department's rank and file and put Richmond in the middle of an issue that has sparked violent protests in cities across the country since grand juries failed to indict white officers who killed unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City. At the same time, the Richmond Police Department has drawn criticism for its own use of force in the shooting death of Richard Perez by an officer in September, the city's first fatal officer-involved shooting in seven years.

Richmond Police Officers Association attorney Alison Berry Wilkinson said Friday that by participating in the protest while in uniform, Magnus broke the law he is charged with upholding.

"The Richmond Police Officers' Association does not tolerate or condone illegal actions by any member of the department, including the chief," Wilkinson wrote in an email. "By violating the law and then claiming the ends justify the means, the chief dishonored the department."

California government code 3206 reads, "No officer or employee of a local agency shall participate in political activities of any kind while in uniform."

Union President Hector Esparza did not respond to calls and an email seeking comment. Three Richmond police officers, who declined to give their names for fear of retribution, said the rank and file is divided over the chief's actions.

Some of the emails Magnus received focused on anger over "black lives" being singled out in the protest and the inference that Magnus picked sides against law enforcement. Many came from retired law enforcement personnel, he said.

In a telephone interview and in an open letter on the police department's Facebook page, Magnus has characterized his actions as an apolitical gesture to build better relations between his department and minority communities.

"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," Magnus wrote. "It was an important commitment of goodwill to acknowledge that we understand many minority individuals don't trust the police and that we want to change this."

He added that he and several members of his command staff decided to attend the protest, which was organized by a local youth center, to "build bridges" and ensure the protest was peaceful. He said he was asked by one of the youths to hold the sign, and "agreed because I wanted to demonstrate that our police department really is serious about building stronger relationships with communities of color."

Magnus sent an open letter to the entire department Monday explaining his actions: "This was not about supporting a candidate, an election issue, or taking a position on any national-level case involving the police," Magnus wrote. "I agree it is usually inappropriate to do these things in public, especially in uniform or identified as an RPD officer. On the other hand, I believe that making a very positive affirmation that 'minority lives matter' is completely consistent with the basic principles of good policing."

Magnus' actions appear to be supported by local elected officials, and a statement from the city attorney and city manager concluded that he broke no law.

"We don't consider it to be a political activity but community policing; (Magnus is) a cop building relationships," City Manager Bill Lindsay said. "I don't see black lives matter as a political statement but a self-evident truth." Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles noted in a Facebook message that the police union has supported various candidates and political issues over the years, sometimes with pictures of officers in uniform. The union also sponsored mailers — sometimes with a police officer pictured — attacking Mayor Gayle McLaughlin during her re-election campaign in 2010.

" ... (Magnus) wearing his uniform as he supports community members is absolutely appropriate," Beckles wrote. "What's not appropriate is police officers wearing their uniforms on campaign mailers that slam community leaders." She called the union a "disgrace to good cops everywhere."

The union disagrees, according to its attorney.

"While many may admire the chief for proactively engaging with the community on one of the most significant political issues of the day, by doing so in uniform he violated the very laws he is sworn to uphold," Wilkinson wrote.

Mayor-elect Tom Butt, who also attended the protest, called the union "hypocritical" and noted that union officers routinely work in Richmond politics while dressed as police officers.

"They have a lot of gall to criticize the chief," Butt said.

Wilkinson said the issues are different. "RPOA members appear with political candidates and support ballot measures wearing RPOA shirts, not uniforms."

Copyright 2014 Contra Costa Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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