- Photo by Lance Yamamoto
- Mark Gagan rose to public prominence during Richmond's renaissance.
To many, Richmond Police Captain Mark Gagan was the embodiment of community policing. During his 13 years as lead public information officer for the city's police department, Gagan had a reputation for honesty and empathy, which generated trust among Richmond's diverse communities and made him one of the most popular officers on the force. Many Richmond residents felt as though Gagan, 48, understood them, and victims of violent crimes and their families trusted him to be their public voice when theirs had been silenced by unspeakable pain.
So, when Gagan was fired earlier this year, many people in the city were shocked.
The circumstances were even more curious: Last August, Gagan was put on administrative leave after being accused of giving a restricted police report to a television news reporter. The report involved Vice Mayor Eduardo Martinez, who was robbed at gunpoint outside of a Richmond wine bar. When police arrived to take the report, they noted the smell of alcohol on Martinez's breath and that he was driving a city-owned car.
Three months later, after an extensive investigation, Police Chief Allwyn Brown recommended that Gagan be terminated, accusing him of releasing the restricted report and lying during an internal affairs investigation. But that investigation ultimately found no evidence of the accusations against Gagan, and in May, the police captain was reinstated to his job.
To many, Gagan's firing was cause for concern. From 2006 to 2015, Chief Chris Magnus transformed the department from a rudderless agency with a reputation for apathy, corruption, and negligence into a national model for effective community policing. Gagan rose to prominence during the department's era of reform. It was his responsibility to communicate to residents a new departmental philosophy, which required officers to treat people with dignity and respect, listen to individuals' voices during encounters, be transparent in decision-making, and to always convey a sense of trustworthiness.
When Magnus left Richmond at the end of 2015 to become the police chief in Tucson, Ariz., Assistant Chief Allwyn Brown was named the new top cop, and it soon became clear that there would be changes. Gagan's firing, as well as other incidents — including several Richmond cops being caught up in an Oakland police sex scandal involving an underage victim, and the Richmond Police Department's negligent response to a domestic violence 911 call that may have led to the murder of a young mother — have many wondering if the department is reversing all the progress made under Magnus and backsliding into disrepute.
Brown did not respond to numerous phone calls and email requests for comment on this story, but the Express obtained hundreds of pages of city records through the California Public Records Act that paint a picture of a troubled police department whose police chief has cultivated an air of secrecy around a department that had once been nationally renowned for its transparency.
Mayor Tom Butt said he knew Gagan to be a responsible officer who was highly regarded across all factions of Richmond's diverse and politically active communities, which is a rare thing in any city. "We were all shocked when Gagan was fired," Butt said. "He was one of the city's most popular and respected officers. We all felt there was a story there that was not being told."
Perhaps no one was more shocked than Gagan. According to Gagan, before Brown was sworn in as police chief in early 2016, he and Brown had been good friends. The two men met for coffee every morning at a Peet's in El Cerrito and talked about work, city politics, and their families. But since Brown became chief, Gagan felt as though he was being marginalized. Gagan said Brown reduced his assignments and, during the entire year of 2016, never called his office phone except once, and Brown said it was a misdial.
If Brown meant to ruin Gagan's credibility by firing him for lying, the gambit backfired. Not only did it fail to destroy Gagan's reputation, but it succeeded in bringing more scrutiny on a troubled police department that in recent years has appeared to protect errant officers and attempt to cover up misconduct, mistakes, and malfeasance rather than openly confront and correct its failings.
Failings that include the dubious investigation and firing of Capt. Mark Gagan.
Gagan was hired by the Richmond Police Department in 1994, shortly after he graduated from Los Medanos College's Law Enforcement Academy. He had several offers from suburban cities with low crime rates, but he decided on Richmond. "I didn't want to work at a police department where they make a big deal out of little things like skateboarding on the sidewalk," Gagan said. "I really wanted to work in a city where there were real crime challenges, and I choose Richmond because I was aware of the challenges there."
He was promoted to sergeant in just five years, which made him the youngest and most quickly promoted police sergeant in Richmond's history. He led a SWAT team and a high-risk entry team that served search warrants on gang members and violent felons. The team made felony arrests and collected evidence including drugs, cash, and weapons like sawed-off shotguns and Tec-9 automatic handguns.
As a team leader, Gagan developed a reputation for keeping his officers calm prior to high-risk entries. Several officers familiar with Gagan's career said that during one remarkable year, Gagan's team executed 85 high-risk search warrants with no complaints for unnecessary use of force or unnecessary property damage — both of which are common with high-risk entries.