Fatal Errors

by Dennis J. Bernstein. The following three-part series reprinted with permission of WhoWhatWhy.org, an independent, nonprofit news site

Part 1 Police Brutality in Tucson

“Get on the f—ing ground!” cops yell.

“OK, OK, please,” Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez desperately pleads as he drops to all fours, naked, disoriented, and terrified in a darkened corner of his grandmother’s Tucson garage. 

He wails and screams as three officers swoop down on him, forcing his face into the floor as they double handcuff his arms behind his back. He offers no resistance, apologizing, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I love everybody.” He cries out for his grandmother to help, “Nana, ayúdame! … Please give me some water. … I can’t breathe!”

“Tranquilo! Chill the f— out, man,” shouts Officer Ryan Starbuck, bearing down on the man’s back. Starbuck, with 12 years of experience as an emergency medical technician, should have known better.

“Why are you doing this to me?” Ingram-Lopez asks in bewilderment as his increasingly desperate pleas for water are continuously ignored.

“You’re going to get shocked, dude,” threatens Officer Samuel Routledge. “You’re gonna get zapped.”

The hyped-up police officers jam a spit sock over the head of a man who is crying that he can’t breathe. His grandmother hands one of them a bottle of water for Carlos, but it’s not passed on. They cover his overheated head and body with yellow blankets while he struggles. 

He is choking now, desperately trying to clear his throat, shouting out helplessly for the water he never receives. “Oh my God, no, no, no!” he cries out.

The last few minutes of his life are captured on video recorded by police body cameras. They show him struggling, pleading, covered with a blanket, and finally unresponsive as one officer taps him and asks, “Are you alive?”

Attorney Greg Kuykendall, who represents the 2-year-old daughter of Ingram-Lopez, has viewed footage of the April 21 incident from several of the police body cams.

“So the police arrived, guns drawn,” said Kuykendall. “They taze the dog, they start shouting, they order Adrian to the ground. And Adrian at this point is naked; it’s cold outside but he’s naked and sweating and he’s screaming. And the reason we know this is we’ve got body cam evidence from the various officers, and it shows that what they did is they immediately ordered him to the ground. He complied and they put handcuffs on him and then they jumped on him.

“So he’s face down on the pavement in his grandmother’s garage, sweating profusely, screaming, crying,” Kuykendall continued. “He’s clearly in a state of high distress. And he’s very, very hot and dehydrated, he’s begging for water.

“This goes on for 12 full minutes. And during this time he’s not only handcuffed but these three large officers are on him; literally kneeling on his back between his shoulders. And then after about nine minutes of kneeling on him … they put a spit mask on him. And he’s not spitting at them or anything else; he’s face down on the pavement. But they put a spit mask on him and ultimately they suffocate him.

“And after about 12 minutes some other officers noticed that this is completely against regulation, that he’s down, face down, and that he’s got this spit mask on and that he’s not moving. So they say ‘What’s going on? Shouldn’t he be in the recovery position?’ So they uncover him at that point — they had covered him previously with plastic blankets which just made him that much hotter. 

“They step off of him and they turn him over, and he’s dead. 

“So they begin to perform CPR on him but he’s dead. And not only have they now killed this guy, but then they don’t tell the mayor or the City Council about it for not just a month but for two months. And after one month — one month after they’ve killed him, George Floyd is murdered and the nation erupts about that.”

Tucson police officers entered the garage of the grandmother of Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez to find him naked in the corner, moaning and calling out incoherently. Photo credit: James Freeman / YouTube

This is a too-familiar story, says Kuykendal: A family member is having a breakdown (Ingram-Lopez was under the influence of cocaine), they call 911 for help, and that “help” turns deadly when the police responders turn a psychological breakdown into a family’s worst nightmare. 

“It’s a series of events that routinely and repeatedly happens to people of color. It’s shocking to me, and I am old enough and have been doing this for long enough that I shouldn’t be shocked anymore,” said Kuykendal.

“But this one absolutely shocks me; the level of violence that they did and for the length of time that they did this to Adrian while he lay screaming, and then finally he died and they still stayed on top of him. And at one point in the body cam footage you can see one of the officers slap him on the back and say ‘You finally calmed down did you?’ or something of that nature.”

Magdalena Ingram, the grandmother, had called 911 for help because Carlos was under the influence and behaving erratically, not because he was a threat to anyone. Among the officers restraining Carlos was Starbuck, who was a certified EMT before joining the Tucson police. Yet somehow neither he nor the other officers recognized this situation as an extreme medical crisis until it was too late to matter. Twelve minutes and 14 seconds after being cuffed with his face pressed against the floor, 27-year-old Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez lay still. He will never again be greeted by his family, or hold his little girl.

It is obvious why police would be in no rush to release the body camera footage. But it’s even more troubling that Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus — known as a reformer in the field of policing — was the one sitting on the Tucson footage, even while saying he would never support the kind of deadly police force applied to George Floyd in Minneapolis.

On September 2, Kuykendall filed a notice of claim under the Arizona Wrongful Death Act, giving the city of Tucson 60 days to settle or to be prepared to be sued for Ingram-Lopez’s death. The family is seeking $16 million from city taxpayers and an additional $3 million from three of the police officers at the scene.

“One of the police officers had been an emergency medical technician, and for 12 years prior to joining the Tucson Police Department,” said Kuykendall. “That’s the officer that put the spit mask on him in complete violation of all the protocols and procedures and the training that he’d received. That officer … personally was aware of the medical risks that are inherent in putting a mask of this sort on top of a person that’s experiencing this kind of state of excited delirium … they recognized that he was in a very unlucid state of psychological condition.”

Somebody picked up the spit mask and threw it away. 

Kuykendall also said the officers ignored the grandmother’s attempt to help. “At one point — and mind you this is a Hispanic grandmother that barely speaks English — at one point she came out in the garage against police orders and brought him a bottle of water. The police — these police officers initially claimed that he had never even asked for water. But he was shouting: ‘Nana, ayúdame; Nana, agua,’ and saying it in English as well.

“The former EMT took it from her and he said ‘We’ll give him water when he begins to calm down; when he complies with our request.’ Now [Ingram-Lopez] was totally compliant in terms of not being able to move or anything, but he was continuing to shout and scream because he was in such a terrible psychological state. 

“But that’s the mindset that you’ve got is a guy with medical training who refuses to give water to a man who’s begging for water and who desperately needs water, and instead puts a spit mask on him and then allows him to be suffocated. I mean he chokes and suffocates on his own vomit inside the spit mask.”

Then the spit mask disappeared. “So it’s not even a piece of evidence and we’re unable to find out precisely what was in the spit mask and whether Adrian choked on his own vomit or sputum or whatever it was,” Kuykendall said. 

“It is destruction of evidence. I don’t know who destroyed it. … And there was a whole task force of police officers out there collecting evidence and doing it just like you see on TV; putting down the little numbers and taking a million pictures. But somebody picked up the spit mask and threw it away.”

The mask “never should have been placed on his head in the first place, [it] violated all of the protocols and training that these officers had repeatedly received,” Kuykendall said. “Even by the police officers’ own reports they acknowledged that they’d received spit mask training over and over again.”

Tucson police officers wrapped Carlos Ingram-Lopez in two plastic blankets, covered his mouth with a spit mask, and kneeled on his back for 12 full minutes.

According to a subsequent internal investigation completed in June, three of the five officers committed major violations: “Multiple allegations of misconduct were sustained against three of the officers, all of which resulted in the finding of Severe Misconduct … The investigation revealed a series of actions by each of the three focus officers which showed complete disregard for the training provided to each, disregard for established policy, but most importantly an apparent indifference or inability to recognize an individual in medical distress and take the appropriate action to mitigate the distress.”

The three officers who interacted directly with Ingram-Lopez — Starbuck, Routledge, and Jonathan Jackson — “were recommended for termination” in the report, completed June 19. But after sitting on the videotape for two months, Chief Magnus allowed the officers to resign the previous day, instead of being fired.

Magnus also apparently ignored a second independent autopsy, commissioned by the family, that pointed the finger at police. “His death is most consistent with asphyxia due to a compromised airway, which is best explained by the face-down position restricting his breathing,” the autopsy report said.

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and members of the City Council first saw body camera footage of the incident on June 22. In a Facebook post on June 23, City Council member Lane Santa Cruz revealed to the public for the first time the details of Ingram-Lopez’s brutal death. She has been under extreme pressure ever since, including demands from the police union to resign or be fired.

“I already had a sense of the framing that they were going to try to put around his death,” Santa Cruz told WhoWhatWhy. “Basically, they were going to do character assassination and talk about like, ‘This was a choice he made doing coke.’

“I felt like that was very unfair,” she said. “I myself lost my brother four years ago to an accidental fentanyl overdose. And to dehumanize somebody like that, for mental health and drug addiction, is very wrong.” Santa Cruz said the family of Ingram-Lopez called police to get help for Carlos, “not for him to die.”

The Cover-Up

After the April 21 death of Ingram-Lopez, but before it was disclosed to Tucson officials or the public, George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, igniting worldwide protests against police brutality.

Magnus and the police union also went to great lengths to distance themselves from events in Minneapolis. The chief proudly declared there had been only 12 deaths in Tucson police custody over the past decade, of which seven were determined to be suicides, while five died being restrained by police.

Tucson police released a public statement on June 23 that stated “death as documented in the Pima County Medical Examiner’s report was ascribed to sudden cardiac arrest, with acute cocaine intoxication and an enlarged heart.” However, the actual report, released in full the next day by the county medical examiner, stated — twice — that the cause of Ingram-Lopez’s death was “sudden cardiac arrest in the setting of acute cocaine intoxication and physical restraint [emphasis added].”

Roberto Villaseñor, who was Tucson’s police chief until he retired in 2015, told the New York Times that officers had been trained not to leave people in a face-down position. “You never try and leave someone on their stomach,” he said. “You turn them to the side and help them sit up so they can breathe. Why they didn’t do that here is going to be one of the major questions.”

Santa Cruz said it was a “glaring omission” to omit physical restraint in the police department’s summary. “This is reckless and points toward an attempt to hide/obscure information that the family and public would need,” she told TucsonSentinel.com. “The overemphasis by TPD pointing to cocaine in Adrian’s autopsy report is nothing but victim-blaming. It is 2020 and it is well documented that drug addiction is an illness. No life is disposable.”

In response, the Tucson Police Officers Association (TPOA), called for Santa Cruz to resign, and even conjured up phony allegations that she assaulted an officer at a vigil for Ingram-Lopez.

Las Adelitas Arizona, a community activist group, issued a letter of support praising Santa Cruz for “her willingness to ask questions, demand accountability and engage in our community.” It said the police union criticism was “an attempt to intimidate, misrepresent and deflect attention away from Council Member Santa Cruz’s legitimate concerns and actions. These attacks are also politically motivated, stemming from their support of [President Trump’s] agenda and employing the same bullying tactics he has popularized at the national level.”

Magnus had another media trick up his sleeve. At a high-profile press conference, after viewing the death tape, and in a move that surprised the mayor and the city council, Magnus offered his resignation, which diverted the focus of the press conference from the killing of Ingram-Lopez. Neither the mayor nor the city manager accepted the resignation. 

“It was a distraction,” said Santa Cruz, “and it was followed by an attack on the victim for being a druggy or whatever they were saying. It was meant to degrade the victim.”

“And it was successful,” added Kuykendall. “It was a two-part strategy and he was successful on both parts. One was to change the focus of the national media’s attention. So what you saw reported the next day in the New York Times and the other big media outlets was that the chief of police had offered to resign, which is beside the point.

“I mean the point is the Tucson Police Department killed a man, and in an extraordinarily horrendous, egregious way. So he successfully changed the topic of conversation because now it becomes all about him.”

This isn’t the first time that an officer under Magnus has been blamed for the death of an unarmed man who had committed no crime. Years earlier, Magnus left the same position in Richmond, CA, under a cloud after grossly mishandling the death in police custody of a young man who was shot multiple times at close range.

Part 2 Shot By Police in Richmond California

Like flashbulbs detonating, three bursts of light illuminate the interior of a store in Richmond, CA, accompanied by the sound of three gunshots in quick succession. Pedie Perez stumbles inside through the doorway, bleeding profusely from his torso. He lurches a few steps down an aisle and collapses to the floor, sprawling face upward.

It is approximately 1 a.m. on September 14, 2014. It will be more than six hours before the coroner’s van arrives to pick up his body. It will be more than four years before an investigation into the shooting by a police officer concludes there was no reason Perez had to die.

The Richmond case has several things in common with another in-custody police killing, in Tucson, AZ, in 2019. (See Part I of this series). Both were eventually found to be unjustified. Both occurred under the same police chief: Chris Magnus.

Richard “Pedie” Pedro Perez III was a hard working 24-year-old, a former swimmer on his high school team, and the third generation to work in his family’s business.

“Pedie was very strong and very helpful to me,” said his father, Rick. “With my son working, it was making him more mature, making him more responsible. He was very unselfish, a very good person, and very responsive to the neighborhood.”

Police say they were called to the store based on some kind of disturbance, but this is in dispute. A local news reporter who interviewed the store clerk, an eyewitness to the killing of Perez, disputes the police accounting of the events and claimed he was never even interviewed by officers because he didn’t speak English and the investigators at the scene did not utilize a translator. 

But within hours of the shooting, Magnus issued a statement blaming the suspect, saying he had attacked police Officer Wallace Jensen before being shot:

One of our patrol officers … was doing foot patrol at Uncle Sam’s Liquor Store. … The officer directed the suspect to sit on the sidewalk so he could conduct a records check. The suspect resisted being detained and attacked the officer when the officer tried to physically control him.

During this fight, the suspect became increasingly aggressive and tried to disarm the officer by attempting to pull the gun out of the officer’s holster. The officer unsuccessfully tried to control the suspect and repeatedly directed him to submit to the detention. The officer and the suspect fell to the ground as they grappled with each other. The suspect grabbed and held on to one of the officer’s hands, while using his other hand to simultaneously go for the officer’s gun. This was seen by at least one independent witness.

As the officer tried to retreat, the suspect continued his assault. The physically exhausted officer, fearing the suspect would overpower him and get his gun, fired three shots at the suspect, striking him in the chest. The suspect succumbed to his injuries at the scene.

“He was already conveying the message to the media in less than eight hours that my son tried to reach for the cop’s weapon, and he was a criminal,” said Perez. “He tried to demonize my son.”

Magnus had a successful track record in a decade-long run as Richmond police chief, despite a racial discrimination lawsuit by Black officers that was rejected by a jury in 2012. Richmond had been noted for gang violence, but in 2014 the city reported only 11 homicides for the whole year — its lowest number since 1971. Perez believes Magnus used his credibility as a reformer to cover for police crimes, including the death of his son. “Chief Magnus is more concerned about his reputation, and about protecting the blue brotherhood, than protecting the community from police violence,” he said.

Four months later, Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson’s office released a report that exonerated Jensen. “The evidence indicates that Officer Jensen believed that he was faced with the choice of using his weapon against Mr. Perez, or having Mr. Perez use it against him,” the report said, concluding: “The officer acted in lawful self-defense. Based on our review, we believe the officer’s actions constitute justifiable homicide.”

Three years later, it was the prosecutor himself whose conduct was found to be unlawful; on June 19, 2017, Peterson was charged with 13 felonies related to illegal use of campaign funds. “He was Contra Costa County’s district attorney — until Wednesday,’’ the San Francisco Chronicle reported, adding that Peterson was accused of “using his campaign fund as if it were a personal bank account. … Peterson made approximately 600 expenditures from the political account for his personal use.”

Peterson cut a deal with state prosecutors, who allowed him to plead no contest to a single felony count of perjury, for filing false statements on campaign disclosure forms. The state dropped the other 12 charges in exchange for his resignation as district attorney. Peterson was sentenced to just 250 hours of community service and three years of probation.

More than six years after Perez’s death, defiant protest banners still ring the work yard of the family recycling business. Perez’s father, Rick, says passersby will often stop to take selfies next to the signs, like the one depicting a Richmond police car under a headline that proclaims, “Justice For Pedie, Jail Killer Cops.”

The Bay Area has a long tradition of community organizing against racist police violence, dating back to the founding of the Black Panthers in 1966. More recently, the Oscar Grant Committee Against Police Brutality and State Repression has actively campaigned for police accountability. Oscar Grant was a 22-year-old African American in 2009, the father of a four-year-old daughter, when he was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer on the platform of an Oakland train station. Grant was unarmed, lying face down with his hands behind his back, when he was killed.

The Oscar Grant Committee offered its support to the family of Pedie Perez in 2014. Together, they launched a tenacious community-led investigation and grassroots mobilization that continues to this day. The effort to hold violent police in Richmond accountable became part of the national movement now known as Black Lives Matter.

“Our investigation started in 2015,” said Gerald Smith, a veteran activist with the Oscar Grant Committee. “We went into the community, into the Kennedy Houses, and literally knocked on doors with pictures of Pedie and a leaflet, asking people if they had seen anything. By the end of the day we had six witnesses and two tapes of what had happened.”

Roll the next tape, from eyewitnesses:

Narrator: All we want is the truth, because when we read the police chief’s report, he says that Pedie attacked the officer.

Witness 1: I was bringing Pedie out the store, bringing him to my house. The police were parked on the side. I got to the corner. The police told me and my grandson to “go the f— home.” He told Pedie, “You bring your ass around the corner.” He made Pedie sit down on the ground ‘cause I didn’t leave.

Witness 2: When I was getting out of the car, we thought it was people fighting. So when we got out to look, the policeman was beating on him, on Pedie.

Witness 3 (via a translator): The officer tackled Pedie and he put him down.

Witness 2: Pedie was on his stomach. He was face down on the ground.

Witness 3 (via a translator): Pedie was yelling from pain.

Witness 3: Yeah… he was screaming, maybe three or four, five times.

Witness 3 (via a translator): So right after the officer allowed Pedie to get up halfway, he gives him a bear hug and starts squeezing him up.

Witness 4: I’m walking past him and I’m looking down at him at the same time. And he’s telling Pedie to stop resisting, stop resisting. All of a sudden I see the officer back up, and I heard the gunshots, boom, boom, boom.

Witness 2: Pedie got himself up, and then he was backing. And then the police reached for his gun. And he was like, put his hands up. He said, “Don’t shoot me, don’t shoot me.” And he shot him, like 3 times.

Witness 4: I see Pedie. He was coming in the store and he was holding his chest. He’s, “Oh man, oh man.” He looked at me, and I looked at him. He dropped to the ground no more than four feet away from me. And he looked at me. That boy never moved again.

Witness 1: Pedie was in the store laying down bleeding. I was trying to get in the store. The police put the gun in my face and told me if I didn’t back the f— up, I’d be laying right down with him.

Narrator: At any point that you were able to see, did you see Pedie try to take the cop’s gun from him?

Witness 2: No, his hands were up.

Narrator: His hands were up and he said, “Please don’t shoot”?

Witness 2: Yeah, “Please don’t shoot.”

Narrator: At any point did you see Pedie put his hands on Officer Jensen’s gun? What about when they were wrestling on the ground?

Witness 2: No, no.

Witness 3 (via a translator): There were no mis-acts or misbehave by Pedie, trying to reach for the officer’s gun in any way.

Witness 1: I don’t understand why he stopped us at all… because I was bringing Pedie home. So what made him stop us at all?

Smith said the community investigation directly contradicted police findings into the shooting. “One, Pedie never, ever, reached for Wallace Jensen’s gun,” Smith said. “Pedie was walking away from Wallace Jensen. That may have been illegal if you’re being detained. Pedie just said, ‘f— this,’ and walked away. Well, that may not be legal, OK? But Wallace Jensen tackled Pedie.

“And this is a liquor store that people are going in and out of. Numerous people saw it. And you know how people gather around when there’s something that looks like a fight. So many, many, people saw this. So, we took these witnesses, and we taped their testimony, and we put it on YouTube. And we took these witnesses to the City Council meeting in Richmond in our effort to persuade the Richmond Progressive Alliance [another local grassroots organization] that we were telling the truth.”

Julie Perez was standing atop a bench with a bullhorn in her hand when police approached. It was September 25, 2015, a year after her son was killed. They ordered her to switch off the sound system and forced the demonstrators across the street, so dignitaries at the Richmond Civic Center were shielded from the sights and sounds of their protest. Inside, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch was lauding Chief Magnus, thrusting him into the national spotlight for “developing positive relationships with the community.”

A few months later, after a lawsuit by the Perez family against the city of Richmond was settled, Julie Perez would say, “We’re not demonizing the police, they’re demonizing themselves. They’re not being held accountable for what they’ve done. … And that’s something we’re seeing across the nation.”

“The City Council crafted a law so that there could be an independent investigation,” said Smith. Indeed, the Richmond independent police review board was inspired by the actions the community had taken in support of the Perez family and its investigation of the police.

“Richmond is the only city that has this law,” said Smith. “Other cities need it. If there is a shooting by the police, the police harm a citizen, there will be an independent investigation. So, the Citizens Police Review Commission hired an independent investigator [in February 2016], and he studied the [Perez] case, interviewed people, we got him witnesses… And guess what?”

It took over two years for the investigator and review commission to conclude in April 2018 that Officer Jensen used “unnecessary or excessive force.” And it was another year and half before some details were publicly released in a case summary. David Brown, the chair of the commission, acknowledged that, “the Perez family held our feet to the fire and insisted we create a public report.” On October 2, 2019, the renamed Community Police Review Commission made its final public statement and closed out the investigative process. The heart of the statement read:

Officer Jensen confronted Mr. Perez outside the store on a public sidewalk. Perez was obviously intoxicated but did not appear to be a threat to himself or others. Mr. Perez was unarmed. Officer Jensen’s statement gave no indication that Jensen thought Perez was armed with a weapon.

Mr. Perez initially complied with Officer Jensen’s commands. He sat on the curb as instructed by Officer Jensen, and gave his name and address. On multiple occasions he stated that he wanted to go home. Mr. Perez then got up and began walking toward his home. Officer Jensen tackled him, using a “judo take-down” to knock Mr. Perez to the ground. This “take-down” was the initiation of violence and the use of force. Mr. Perez physically resisted Officer Jensen’s attempts to handcuff him. A struggle ensued, culminating in Officer Jensen firing three rounds at Mr. Perez, causing his death.

The commission found, by clear and convincing evidence, the testimony of Officer Jensen attempting to justify his use of lethal force was inconsistent with the evidence presented to the commission. Officer Jensen stated that Mr. Perez had his hand on his (Jensen’s) service handgun and was attempting to grab it from its holster. DNA analysis showed no evidence of Mr. Perez’s DNA on the gun or holster. Officer Jensen stated that Mr. Perez was charging toward him when he fired. Gunshot trajectory analysis shows that Mr. Perez was close to the ground and likely facing away from Officer Jensen when he was struck by the first bullet.

Jensen initiated physical violence directed at Mr. Perez despite Perez posing no threat to Jensen or anyone else at the scene. Jensen was unable to physically dominate Mr. Perez and escalated to shooting his gun at Mr. Perez, causing his death. Officer Jensen had lesser, nonlethal alternatives available to him that he did not employ. Conclusion: The investigator finds that there is evidence that Officer Jensen violated RPD’s Use of Force policies (300). Officer Jensen did not properly escalate his actions and his story regarding Mr. Perez lunging toward him to attack him and grab his weapon was found to be, at the least, embellished.

The victim’s father and his family believe the independent probe got much closer to the truth than any of the previous investigations, although many of the details have still not been publicly released. But their community-led investigation differed on some points, and they found additional evidence of Jensen’s culpability that was not included in the police commission’s case summary.

On the very next day after the review commission issued its statement, the Contra Costa District Attorney’s office announced there would be no prosecution:

After a thorough review involving multiple attorneys and senior inspectors, our office did not file any criminal charges against Officer Jensen. Our office can only bring charges when we believe that we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury that the officer in question committed a crime. We could not meet this high standard based on the evidence. The Review Commission has a different legal standard. We must uphold the law and adhere to the strict requirements necessary to bring a criminal case.

Rick Perez responded, “If it was the other way around, if someone killed an officer, they would insist it go to trial, and it would. I can almost forgive the officer that shot my son, but I can’t forgive the institution that tries to cover it up no matter what.”

Part 3 Police Reformer or Cover-Up Artist

Chris Magnus could have been a poster child for the modern-day police chief: progressive, reform-oriented, effective — and openly gay.

Many credited him for implementing a community policing model in Richmond, CA, that professionalized the force and significantly reduced crime. Magnus even held up a Black Lives Matter sign at a Richmond demonstration in 2014, protesting the killings of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.

But then there’s the other Magnus: self-serving, a hypocrite who, for well over two months, covered up police suffocation of a man in custody, and years earlier defended another killing by a police officer that was eventually ruled to be unwarranted. He also bullied critics, including a Tucson, AZ, City Council member and a California newspaper reporter who began investigating a two-year-old police shooting.

Will the real Chris Magnus please stand up?

Magnus had been police chief in Fargo, ND, “one of the safest and whitest places in America, a city then averaging only one homicide every two years,” according to Washington Monthly. So he seemed an unlikely choice in 2006 for the top job in Richmond, a hardscrabble, high-crime, mostly nonwhite community in the Bay Area. Richmond’s homicide rate in 2005 to 2006 made it one of the most dangerous cities in the US on a per capita basis.

But he achieved results. Washington Monthly’s profile, published in late 2016, concluded that Magnus “had greatly improved public safety by repairing relations with a majority-minority community long estranged from the police.”

From 2009 to 2014, “killings in Richmond — often gang related — declined five years in a row,” the article said. “Violent crime in general was 23 percent lower, and property crime fell by 40 percent during that period. By the end of 2015, the city’s homicide rate was 50 percent lower than a decade earlier.”

The department adopted a community policing model, assigning officers to neighborhoods for longer periods of time so they could get to know residents. “They are in and out of businesses, nonprofits, churches, a wide variety of community organizations, and they come to be seen as a partner in crime reduction,” Magnus said.

To set a personal example, Magnus bought a home in Richmond, close enough to bicycle to work. Late at night, he could hear police sirens and the occasional gunshot. By 2014, about 60 percent of the department’s officers were from minority groups, and the department had 26 women on its payroll.

The same year, he married Terrance Cheung, the mayor’s former chief of staff, in an event attended by a congressman, state legislators, and other heavy hitters. “Despite the big-name guest list, the wedding and reception were simple and elegant, which was in keeping with the couple’s low-key style,” police Capt. Mark Gagan told a reporter. “You would look around at some of the guests here and expect the couple to be a bit pretentious,” Gagan said. “But I don’t think I know two people who are more modest than Chris and Terrance.”

In December 2014, a Richmond youth group organized a downtown vigil lasting 4 1/2 hours, the length of time that Michael Brown lay in the street in Ferguson, MO, after being shot by a police officer. About 100 people attended, including Magnus. When a young protestor handed him a hand-painted sign declaring that “Black Lives Matter,” Magnus displayed it to passing traffic.

In the years from 2008 to 2014, Richmond police averaged less than one officer-involved shooting of any kind, none fatal. “Use of Deadly Force by Police Disappears on Richmond Streets,” read a newspaper headline on September 6, 2014.

A week later, everything changed. Richmond police Officer Wallace Jensen fatally shot 24-year-old Richard “Pedie” Perez after a tussle outside a liquor store; Magnus rushed to defend his officer the same day, and it would take four years for a police review commission to conclude the opposite: 

“The testimony of Officer Jensen attempting to justify his use of lethal force was inconsistent with the evidence presented,” the commission said. “Jensen initiated physical violence directed at Mr. Perez despite Perez posing no threat to Jensen or anyone else at the scene.”

By then, Magnus had departed from Richmond, taking a $22,000 pay cut (to $200,000 annually) to become police chief in Tucson, AZ, even though the department was five times larger. The Tucson police union had opposed his appointment, despite its candidate scorecard crediting Magnus in Richmond with “reduced crime, increased police staffing, increased officer compensation, and improved community relations.” The union didn’t like Magnus’s participation in the BLM protest, or his decision to replace the commander of the department’s internal affairs division with a civilian.

Despite the union opposition, Magnus was named Tucson’s chief in January 2016. His biography on the department’s web site emphasizes his “continuing commitment to improve services for victims of domestic and sexual violence, addressing community corrections issues, focusing on how police respond to people suffering with mental illness, and supporting a myriad of youth programs.”

But then came the agonizing death of Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez in Tucson police custody on April 21, 2020 (See Part 1 and Part 2 of this series). The police chief sat on the case for more than two months before informing top city officials and showing them the shocking video, in mid-June. He didn’t reveal the case to the public until a week later.

In the meantime, George Floyd was killed on May 25 in Minneapolis, igniting national and worldwide protests against police brutality. In a Twitter post the next day, Magnus described Floyd’s death as “indefensible use of force that good officers everywhere are appalled by.” The following week, on May 31, he wrote a guest column in the Arizona Daily Star titled, “What Happened to George Floyd Is Indefensible.”

At a June 24 news conference to finally announce Ingram-Lopez’s death, Magnus extended an olive branch, offering his “sympathy and regrets” to the family of the victim. But then he made a surprise announcement — offering to resign — which upstaged his own presentation of the video, medical examiner’s report, and internal personnel investigation.

Magnus also blamed the coronavirus, saying the “incident took place at the start of the most intense period of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I believe the notification process to the public could have been missed, at least in part, due to some of the chaos that was going on during that period. But nonetheless, public notification should have happened.”

National media focused on the resignation offer, diverting attention from the death of Ingram-Lopez and what Magnus acknowledged were two “serious missteps”: his delay informing the public, and the failure of police leaders to review body camera footage in a timely manner.

City Council member Lane Santa Cruz commented afterward: “I was thrown off about his offer to resign. … The news became about him resigning and not about Carlos Adrian, which felt really like a trick move that I didn’t appreciate. But my sense was, if he wants to leave, that’s on him. That’s not a choice for us. This is our home and now we have to deal with this.”

By the following day, the mayor and other top city officials had expressed support for the police chief. “Under Chief Magnus’ leadership, our police department has developed into one of the most progressive in the country,” said City Manager Michael Ortega, who declined to accept the resignation. “I believe Chris’s leadership is exactly what we need during these difficult times.”

The deeply hurt and angry family of Ingram-Lopez also called for Magnus to stay, but not as an endorsement of him or his police force. “The easy way out for Chief Magnus was to resign,” said Ingram-Lopez’s aunt, Diana Chuffe. “We want him to stay on and we want him to deal with the mess that is in the Tucson Police Department. It does us no good for him to walk away.”

Many questions remain about the death of Ingram-Lopez and the department’s subsequent response, but the chief isn’t discussing most of them. For this series of articles, WhoWhatWhy sent Magnus a list of 14 detailed questions about the Ingram-Lopez case. He declined to answer 13 of them, saying answers could be found in the September 20 findings of a review board.

He was oddly evasive in his response to the 14th question, about why he had permitted the three officers to quit before facing an internal review that could lead to their dismissal — a common tactic for police chiefs trying to gloss over problematic officers.   

Jonathan Jackson, Ryan Starbuck, and Samuel Routledge resigned from the Tucson Police Department rather than face possible termination. Photo credit: Tucson Police Department

“Like any employer, we cannot prevent our personnel from resigning any time they want,” Magnus said. “It was not a question of them ‘being allowed to resign.’” 

The review board report noted, however, that “three of the officers involved had resigned from the TPD rather than going through the process of being terminated due to their actions.”

Despite generally favorable local and national news coverage in both Tucson and Richmond, Magnus and his supporters have openly targeted critics, including elected officials and reporters. 

According to longtime human rights activist and attorney Isabel Garcia, the Tucson Police Officers Association (TPOA) and the firefighters union invested thousands of dollars in an unsuccessful campaign to defeat the two Latinx women running for mayor and city council in the last election, Regina Romero and Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz saw the video of Ingram-Lopez’s death a few days before the June 24 press conference. She posted on Facebook that it was a “horrible incident of police violence.”

TPOA responded with this statement: “Unfortunately, Council Member Santa Cruz chose to issue a false statement about the incident. She is playing fast and loose with the facts, and she knows it. … There was no force used in the incident.”

Alba Jaramillo is executive director of Arizona Justice for Our Neighbors, and a community organizer for immigration rights. Jaramillo and Garcia accused TPOA and its supporters of smearing and harassing Santa Cruz through a nasty social media campaign on Facebook. They say the police union has mobilized its network to prevent Santa Cruz and other elected officials from questioning or speaking out about Ingram-Lopez.

Years earlier, award-winning journalist Karina Ioffee said she was targeted by Magnus in response to her critical reporting on the Perez case directly following the deadly incident. On May 8, 2015, her story carried the headline “Fatal Richmond Shooting Continues to Strain Relationship Between Residents And Police.” (See Part 1 of this series).

She included quotes from an eyewitness who countered the official narrative, and from community members critical of how the case was being handled.

“Magnus asked me for a meeting,” recalled Ioffee. “When I arrived, along with my editor, we were met with at least eight of the highest ranking members of the [Richmond] police department, lieutenants, their assistant chief, PIO [public information officer], etc., all sitting in a small conference room. I believe they were trying to intimidate us.”

In recent email correspondence, Ioffee described the meeting. “What I can tell you was that the Richmond Police Department was not happy that I was ‘dredging up an old case’ two years after it happened,” she said. “I don’t remember exactly what they asked for, possibly to retract the story, but I had a good editor … and he stood by me the entire time, defending my reporting and calmly telling these bullies that the story involved many sources, was solidly researched … and would not be retracted.

“I do believe I was punished for writing about a case that blemished the department and Chris Magnus’s legacy and it made it even harder to report on the department from that point on,” Ioffee said. “But in my experience, that’s how police departments and unions act. Once you’re viewed as a ‘traitor’ by writing a negative story, they turn against you. There was no desire to uncover the truth of what happened and bring the responsible officer to justice.”

In Tucson, community organizers like Jessica Rodriguez are unwilling to accept superficial reforms or fake reformers. “Chief Magnus is really good at creating an image,” Rodriguez said. “There are a few times where he showed up in Tucson carrying a Black Lives Matter sign. He takes pride in being a gay chief of police. That’s the personal image.”

“When it comes down to his reform image, he wants to make his department look different from the others. But now that everything is coming to light, it’s not different.”

The author of this series, Dennis J. Bernstein, is an experienced investigative journalist and host/producer of Flashpoints, syndicated on public and community radio stations across the US and Canada. Bernstein is the recipient of many awards for his work, including the 2015 Pillar Award in Broadcast Journalism, and his articles have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines.

Additional reporting for today’s story provided by Ken Yale, a social justice activist and educator.