RICHMOND -- It's late afternoon, and police Chief Chris Magnus is on the job in a city long considered among the most crime-ridden in the Bay Area.
He sits on a tiny blue chair in a children's playroom, flanked by two beat cops who are similarly contorted. A group of women who work at the Barrett Apartments sit in a semicircle, talking about their challenges managing an after-school program in a tough neighborhood.
Magnus keeps his eyes trained on each speaker while nodding softly. Then he cuts to the chase.
"We have some people that really don't care very much about what happens with other people," Magnus says, eyebrows turned up. "They settle disputes by firing guns off and really don't care who gets in the way. It's scary, but we're doing a lot of things to try to deal with that."
Technology, professionalism and, most important, community support have made Richmond a safer city, he says. And the numbers back him up. Once ranked among the most violent cities in the nation, Richmond is on pace to have fewer than 30 homicides for the fourth time in the past five years, a sharp drop in a city that had averaged 40 homicides annually from 2003 to 2007.
The fair-haired transplant from Fargo, N.D., is the antithesis to the rugged cop archetype. Openly liberal politically, Magnus, 51, is at his best building relationships and nurturing street-level support for his community-based, crime-fighting model.
His unconventional approach and personal style have made him something of an enigma, a leader widely supported in the community and among city leaders but with harsh critics in his profession and his own department.
"I'm probably not a cops' chief," Magnus says, sitting at his desk on a bright morning, a coffee mug embossed with Harvey Milk's picture nearby. "But no, it doesn't bother me. I made that decision long ago," he says, quick to add that he has the "utmost admiration" for the job his officers have done in Richmond.
That admiration has not always gone both ways, reflected in the lawsuit by seven high-ranking African-American officers who claimed that Magnus and his deputy chief had discriminated against them. The trial in Superior Court this year resulted in a resounding victory for Magnus and the city but also left him scarred.
He sat in court daily for four months, watching as lawyers and his own officers accused him of racism.
"It was one of the worst experiences of my life," Magnus said. "I will always be indebted" to the city and residents who stood by me, he said.
The discrimination trial also highlighted some until then little-known facts about the department's direction; Magnus had aggressively promoted and hired women and minorities.
Magnus, who bought a home in the city and joined the neighborhood association when he was hired, has steered a cultural shift in the department, from one that brewed with machismo and secrecy to a transparent, relatively popular institution. Data gathering and sharing with the public are part of the department's DNA. Exhaustive data analyses drive policing strategies, and sophisticated audio-detection systems have officers en route to gunfire before a human can call 911.
The transparency starts with Magnus himself. He posts regularly on Facebook, in a style that is alternately quirky, irreverent, smart and funny, and debates residents on politics and social issues, often reposting articles by liberal columnist Maureen Dowd.
Facebook is also where he updated his relationship status to acknowledge his seven-year partnership with Terrance Cheung, the chief of staff for county Supervisor John Gioia.
Former Councilman Jim McMillan said Magnus inherited a department that had a legacy of mistrust and tense relations with the community, dating at least to the early 1980s, when a jury slapped the department with the then-largest civil rights judgment in history for police brutality.
"A lot of people, including myself, were skeptical when he came here," McMillan said. "We were thinking: Why are we bringing in a guy from North Dakota?"
That skepticism has largely dissipated, along with the mistrust toward the department. Since 2007, Richmond police have shot and killed just one person in the city, despite making thousands of arrests and confiscating an average of one gun per day, according to department statistics.
Magnus frequently cites his emphasis on rigorous use-of-force policies and training in reducing officer-involved shootings. Over the same six-year period, outside law enforcement agencies have killed five people in Richmond.
"Magnus has worked hard at being community-friendly rather than standoffish, and building that attitude in all his officers," said Antwon Cloird, a longtime anti-violence advocate and outreach worker in the city. "The beat cops have geared down a little bit and become more friendly and approachable, and people notice that."
Magnus shows no qualms about challenging orthodoxy. In closely watched public debates over how to spend money from legislation aimed at reducing prison populations, he sided with parolee advocates and took on Contra Costa Sheriff David Livingston, who wanted to spend millions of dollars on more jail space in Richmond.
Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay, who hired the chief in 2006, said standing nearly alone among area chiefs was classic Magnus.
"He took a lot of personal and professional risk within the law enforcement community, and I respect that," Lindsay said. "That's the guy I wanted to hire."
Contact Robert Rogers 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.
HOMETOWN: Lansing, Mich.
CLAIM TO FAME: Richmond's police chief, 2006 to present
BACKGROUND: Former police chief in Fargo, N.D. Before that, he spent 16 years coming up through the ranks of the Lansing, Mich., Police Department. He was also a paramedic in Lansing for 10 years.
QUOTE: "I believe I have a very strong record of promoting persons of color as well as women. I continue to work to make the department as representative of the community as possible."