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Gagan was recognized early on for his communication skills and his unique ability to connect with crime victims across cultural lines. In 2004, he became the city's primary public information officer, and one of his early tasks was being the department's point person on a tragic homicide that had caught the media's attention. A 15-year-old Laotian girl, Chan Boonkeut, was the unintended victim of a rivalry between two Southeast Asian gangs, the Color of Blood and the Sons of Death. Boonkeut was killed when three members of the Sons of Death, who police believe were targeting her brother, shot into Boonkeut's home.
Gagan developed a rapport with Boonkeut's father, Gwai, and, working with Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, helped create the Southeast Asian Youth Task Force, which formed a relationship between the county and a previously insular immigrant community. The task force empowered the community's elders to work with the teenage gang members that ultimately brought an end to the rivalry and unhinged gang violence that included machete killings.
Gioia described Gagan's communication skillset as valuable. "I've known Capt. Gagan for a long time and worked with him for a long time," Gioia said. "Mark Gagan always avoided appearing strictly like a police officer, and community members trusted him because he was empathetic. People felt like they knew him as a person and not as a police officer."
It was during Richmond's renaissance that Gagan rose to public prominence. The entire city underwent a rigorous reform beginning in 2004. Decades of corruption, mismanagement, and high-paying contracts for the city's public safety unions resulted in a financial crisis in 2003, according to a 2004 California State Auditor's report. The crisis was so severe that the city laid off hundreds of employees and closed libraries, senior centers, and fire stations.
The city hired Phil Batchelor, the retired Contra Costa County administrator, who made a list of various ways to correct the city's dysfunction. One of them was bringing in Bill Lindsay as a candidate for city manager. The city council hired Lindsay, who then hired new department heads, which essentially renewed the city’s DNA and began a long process of reform. And one of Lindsay’s most critical choices was hiring a new police chief, Chris Magnus.
When Magnus took over, the Richmond Police Department was still tainted by the misdeeds of a roving band of narcotics cops known as "The Cowboys," who terrorized the city in the early 1980s. After years of brutalizing suspects and violating the civil rights of Richmond residents, the Cowboys were involved in two separate killings of Black men. The subsequent civil cases resulted in a $3 million judgment, which at the time was the largest civil judgment for police abuse in the country's history.
While commenting on the case, a judge said there was clear evidence of an informal department policy that "encouraged and authorized violence and brutality by Richmond police officers against Black residents."
Despite the judgment and national attention, problems persisted. In 2002, Richmond police officers patrolling the Cinco de Mayo festival assaulted and pepper-sprayed Richmond resident Andrés Soto and his sons. They were thrown into a holding cell, where they met at least a dozen other men who had been similarly arrested. The group organized and ultimately won a settlement, and the experience inspired Soto to cofound the Richmond Progressive Alliance.
By 2006, when Magnus was hired, Richmond had been plagued by an excessively high homicide rate for decades. The city regularly made top 10 lists of the country's most dangerous cities, and it seemed like the heartbreak of deadly violence had become a ponderous miasma hanging over the working-class city. Richmond ministers regularly held anti-violence rallies at city council meetings, and in 2006, a series of spontaneous tent cities sprung up in the neighborhoods most affected by violent crime.
Magnus, who was openly gay, instituted wide-ranging reforms to the department that included promoting more women and people of color than any of his predecessors, upgrading crime-fighting technologies, and, perhaps most importantly, refashioning the department's relationship with Richmond's culturally diverse communities. During Magnus' reform efforts, Gagan's job was to communicate a new departmental philosophy characterized by a more respectful, trustworthy, and transparent approach to community relations.
As Magnus' reforms took hold, the city's homicide rate began to drop. There were 40 homicides in 2006 when Magnus took over, and by 2014 there was a record low of 11. The results attracted the attention of the national media and Magnus was invited to testify before the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which was commissioned by President Barack Obama in 2014.
In 2015, Dr. Lorie Fridell of the Fair and Impartial Policing's training agency, which takes a scientific and psychological approach to its training methods, conducted several sessions with the Richmond Police Department. She said she was impressed with the level of trust the department had built up with the community through a multi-pronged approach that included precision policing, expanded communication policies, and long-term patrol assignments in which developing relationships with community members was a priority. "And one of the key features to building trust is being transparent," Fridell said. "Officers were expected to get out of their cars and engage with community members."
Officer accountability was a key element of Magnus' reform. "We're transparent and proactive in dealing with bad behavior," Magnus said in a 2015 interview with Richmond Pulse. "People [in the department] don't want to stand by and let the one percent break the public trust."