RICHMOND -- When he was tapped to be Richmond's police chief in 2006, Chris Magnus wasn't fully aware of the enormity of what he was about to face.

"I knew I was taking on a major challenge in terms of becoming police chief in a city that had historically very high levels of crime," Magnus said. "On the other hand, I had no idea just what I was getting myself into in terms of the factions within the department, the politics in the community and some of the traps that were being set for me before I even arrived."

The "traps," Magnus said, included command staff in his department resistant to the changes he was determined to make.

Magnus, who has garnered regional and even national acclaim for his community policing approach and successes in reducing crime, discussed his strategies, challenges and even his favorite books at the Richmond Public Library on Thursday. His lecture, titled "Changing the Culture of a Police Department," drew about 45 people and was hosted by the Richmond Public Library Foundation to raise money for its programs.

Magnus' hour-long talk was a wide-ranging discussion that touched on policing approaches, bureaucratic theory and his own baptism by fire leading a department with a history of tumult, internal dissent and high-profile trampling of residents' rights.


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But the central focus was leadership, which he said he honed at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government before coming to Richmond. Among the books he touched on was "Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading," an acclaimed book written by his professors at Harvard.

"I'm not a big fan or frequent reader of leadership books, but I can honestly say that this particular book and its authors have had a powerful impact on my life and career," Magnus said.

The results, Magnus said, speak for themselves. A city that once routinely had more than 40 homicides per year has eight so far in 2014, following the lowest homicide total in more than 30 years in 2013. Violent crime is down 26 percent this year, according to department statistics, and trust and satisfaction in the department's performance are relatively high. An officer has not shot and killed a resident in more than five years.

Magnus credited many other city departments and active residents for contributing to the drop in crime, but cautioned against becoming complacent. "Things can turn in a blink," he said.

Before the progress, Magnus said he had to overcome serious challenges to his leadership and his drive to change the department's culture and practices.

The department he entered in 2006 used "street teams," popular among officers, that focused on pacifying the most violent neighborhoods, an approach Magnus said was ineffective and frayed community relationships. In 2012, he won in court against seven high-ranking officers who sued him for alleged discrimination, and during that trial the disbanding of the street teams was revealed as a major source of friction between Magnus and his critics. Most of his detractors in the department have either retired or "evolved," he said.

At the conclusion of his remarks, Magnus took questions from the audience. One man asked why the city tapped Magnus to be chief after a series of predecessors that were so different in temperament and approach.

"God only knows," Magnus said, drawing laughs.

Residents who spoke Thursday were uniformly pleased with Magnus' work.

"This city is lucky, hiring Magnus was one of our shining moments," said resident Ellen Gailing.

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.