Unorthodox Arizona police chief insists reform can work

When a court in Tucson, Arizona, orders someone to be evaluated for mental health issues, the often prickly task of rounding up that person does not fall to ordinary cops. Rather, it is handled by the Mental Health Support Team, whose 16 highly trained officers dress casually and have relationships with doctors and clinicians across the city.

In an accomplishment that may only be properly appreciated by fellow police, the MHST has dealt with more than 5,000 such orders in recent years, often involving agitated and troubled citizens, without once resorting to force.

It is an example of why many experts regard the Tucson police as one of America’s best-trained and most progressive forces — particularly when it comes to mental health issues. Years before the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month prompted a national rush to police reform, Tucson was well along that path.

The city’s progress, according Christopher Magnus, Tucson’s unorthodox police chief, is a rebuttal to those demanding extreme measures, such as the “defunding” — or even abolition — of police forces they believe are beyond repair. To buttress their arguments, abolitionists point to a string of police killings of black Americans, including Floyd, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor and many others.

“I get it that there are a lot of places that are really doing bad policing now. And they do need serious reform. But to go all the way to the other end of the spectrum, I think, is equally problematic,” said Mr Magnus. Having devoted his career to a more consensual style of community policing, he added, it was “very disappointing to feel like you’re just being pulled under by this current of anger”.

Even Mr Magnus may not be able to deflect demands for sweeping change. This month the Tucson city council postponed a vote on a proposed $514m budget after activists challenged the $165m designated for the police force, by far the largest allocation. During an online council meeting, residents complained that the funding contributed to a “militarised” and “racist” police force.

A self-described “outlier” in the policing world, Mr Magnus did not grow up dreaming of wearing a badge. “I had a ‘Question Authority’ bumper sticker on my bike. I was a political organiser. I thought the police were a bunch of assholes,” recalled the chief, who is gay and married.

As a newly minted officer in Lansing, Michigan, during the crack epidemic in the 1980s, his approach, he said, was “incredibly backwards and exactly the kind of policing that people are pissed about today”. What changed him was coursework at nearby Michigan State University. “We had a really forward-thinking criminal justice department with several professors who were really at the forefront of community policing,” Mr Magnus recalled. “And I really began to evolve in my thinking.”

Striving to build trust with the community was not just a touchy-feely notion, he discovered. It actually worked. It was not until he took over as chief of the Richmond, California, police department in 2006 that he was able to demonstrate this on a bigger scale.

At the time, the San Francisco Bay Area city was suffering record homicides and shootings. “It was almost entirely a community of colour wracked with violence and massive distrust of the police. And what was being done looked like a war on the community as much as it was attempting to be a war on crime,” Mr Magnus recalled. “It really did not work.”

A white man who had most recently run the police force in Fargo, North Dakota, he did not seem like an obvious choice to fix Richmond. But he changed personnel, promoting many Latino officers. He sent officers into the streets and even published their mobile phone numbers to make them more accessible. In a defining moment of his tenure, he appeared in uniform and held up a “Black Lives Matter” sign at a protest following the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

A photo went viral and generated controversy. But by then Richmond’s murder rate had fallen and the force’s morale had improved. “Most importantly,” Mayor Tom Butt observed upon the chief’s departure for Tucson in 2015, “he has built trust again between our community and law enforcement.”

The shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 helped push Tucson to focus on mental health issues © Getty Images

Tucson is a Sun Belt city of 650,000 about an hour’s drive from the US-Mexico border. It has high levels of poverty and transient migrant workers. Its police department, Mr Magnus noted, was hardly a wasteland when he arrived in 2016.

Still, there was work to do implementing the recommendations of a blueprint for 21st-century policing the Obama administration published in 2015, after Brown’s killing in Ferguson unleashed protests that were a precursor to today’s unrest. 

Mr Magnus has also drawn on the recommendations of Campaign Zero, an activist group with the goal of ending police killings — as well as “use of force” guidelines he helped to develop with the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think-tank.

“No matter how many good things you come up with that are enacted at the top of the organisation, if they don’t make their way down to the line level — which I suspect is part of the problem in places like Minneapolis — then you’re doing a lot of box-checking but you’re not making a lot of organisational change,” he said.

Tucson’s focus on mental health was born of a local tragedy. In 2011 Gabrielle Giffords, then a Democratic representative in the US Congress, was shot by an assailant while meeting constituents outside a supermarket.

“There was a real commitment made at that time that we had to do better to identify individuals who were at higher risk before these incidents occurred,” Mr Magnus explained. “That’s a lot of what the MHST team does.”

The process begins with the dispatchers. With better training, they can better define a situation from the outset, determining, for example, whether it requires police intervention or would be better handled by a clinician from the city’s crisis response team.

Regular officers are also trained to follow up on complaints from parents, for example, who fear their children are suffering mental health problems and at risk of becoming violent, and refer them to MHST members so they can intervene. “When you combine that with the de-escalation training everybody gets, it really sets a very different culture about dealing with problem people in the community,” Mr Magnus said. “I’m not suggesting we never use force — that’s not true. But when we do it’s far more thoughtful and deliberate.”

In the future, he would like to recruit officers with a wider variety of life experiences — urban planners and social workers, for example — and not only those from traditional policing backgrounds, such as the military.

One institution held up as an impediment to reform in the current debate are politically powerful police unions. Mr Magnus, a one-time union president, does not necessarily agree.

Still, he sympathises with other chiefs who are unable to dismiss bad officers — either because of union resistance or, in his case, a civilian review board whose members, he believes, are well-intended but overly lenient. “That’s very demoralising, frankly, even for a lot of other cops, who can see some of these folks for what they are,” he said.

Part of persuading officers to embrace a more consensual approach to policing was not breaking their unions, Mr Magnus argued, but changing the way those officers are treated by their department. One example in Tucson was involving them in the drafting of a new disciplinary code.

“If you want the general public to be treated based on the principles of procedural justice, police officers and others in the department have to feel like they’re being treated fairly,” he said. “And if they don’t feel that way, then I think you’re probably not going to be successful in terms of expecting them to treat the public fairly.”