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Behind the badge: Magnus grows into role as top cop

As a 14-year-old paperboy in Lansing, Mich., Chris Magnus railed against officials who wanted to chop down 80 boulevard trees to widen the street. He started a group dubbed "Citizens for a Livable City" and delivered homemade protest leaflets wit...

As a 14-year-old paperboy in Lansing, Mich., Chris Magnus railed against officials who wanted to chop down 80 boulevard trees to widen the street.

He started a group dubbed "Citizens for a Livable City" and delivered homemade protest leaflets with the newspapers.

"I've always been interested in local politics," Magnus said.

In the 28 years since he was a paperboy, not much seems to have changed.

Since his first day as Fargo's police chief four years ago, Magnus, 42, has injected himself into the city's politics -- from pushing new liquor ordinances to advocating different methods of hiring city employees.


He's challenged college drinking, created what some perceived as traffic ticket quotas and defended double-moose killings by police. He also has had to deal with two fatal shootings by officers -- the first in recent history.

Magnus is "the lightning bolt for everything that goes on in the Police Department," said close friend Carol Grimm, health promotion manager of Fargo Cass Public Health.

In general, Fargo has been a great place to work, Magnus said. But the job has taken a toll on his personal life.

Even though working as a patrol officer can be dangerous, it's more difficult to deal with personal attacks, Magnus said. People have called his Fargo home, threatening him to get out of town or be shipped out "face down."

Last year, one resident ran for City Commission on a platform of getting Magnus fired.

The candidate lost, pulling in just 6 percent of the vote.

Magnus, meanwhile, enjoys continued support from city commissioners, who have raised his salary 30 percent --from $68,967 when he started to $90,261.

When asked whether he knew at an early age he would be a police officer, Magnus' emphatic response was: "No. I wasn't into that at all."


His more obvious inclination was toward community activism, which he directed at the Lansing police on at least one occasion.

In high school, Magnus thought young people were treated like second-class citizens.

"I was very frustrated with where law enforcement agents were coming from," he said.

Police officers seemed more focused on punishment than treatment. Kids who probably had problems with their families were victimized twice, he said.

Several police officers asked Magnus to step outside his realm of experience and imagine things from their side.

So he tagged along with on-duty patrol officers for a while and, when he turned 18, began working as a dispatcher for the Lansing Police Department.

"I thought they were putting on a show for me, so I took a job to see what goes on there," he said.

What he found surprised him. In many ways, officers acted as advocates for young people, he said.


"I developed a pretty high regard for the people I was dispatching," which included firefighters, police officers and emergency paramedics, he said.

His high regard for the emergency workers developed into a career choice, one which he said mystified his family.

His father was an art history professor, his mother a piano teacher. His older brother, who is a scientist, and one of his older sisters, an editor, both live in Portland, Ore. Another older sister is a vice president for a telecommunications company in New York City.

"I'm the most conservative one in the family," Magnus said.

Starting a career

While working as a dispatcher from 1979 to 1981, Magnus trained to be a paramedic and paid his way through school at Lansing Community College.

By 1981, he was working as a paramedic in Charlotte, Mich., and toward his associate's degree in business.

"I didn't have enough time to party and have fun, in retrospect, but I got a thrill helping people," he said.


Magnus was still a paramedic when he took a job as a deputy with the Livingston County Sheriff's Department in Howell, Mich., in 1983.

As a 21-year-old police officer, Magnus remembers thinking, "I'll do this until it gets boring, and then I'll get out," which he thought would be in about five years.

In 1985, Magnus joined the Lansing Police Department and worked his way up the ranks from sergeant to lieutenant to captain of the administrative services division.

Magnus "is one of the brightest people I've ever had working for me," said Robert Johnson, who was Lansing's police chief for several years and whom Magnus describes as a mentor. Johnson now is the federal security director for Detroit's Transportation Security Administration.

Magnus frequently challenged the way the Lansing Police Department operated, Johnson said.

"Bob was one of the most infuriating people," Magnus said. "We couldn't have more opposite personalities. I'm almost annoyingly chatty and effusive. He was a man of few words."

In Lansing, Magnus was a public opponent of the department's affirmative action policy, saying it divided people more than it united them.

The department had quotas and was hiring unqualified people solely based on race, Magnus said.


"I'm an advocate of affirmative action done in the right way," he said.

Magnus' opinions made him enemies.

"Johnson was under tremendous pressure not to promote me to captain," Magnus said. "He took a lot of heat for it."

Johnson said Magnus' contentious ways made the police department better, despite the controversy he caused.

But Magnus said some of his views on how to be a leader changed once he became Fargo's chief.

"Trust me. Everything I did as a supervisor (in Lansing) is coming back to haunt me," he said.

Magnus "would call me and say, 'You were right. Now I see your perspective,' " Johnson said.

"I think you learn the most from people who are really different from you," Magnus said.


Honesty 'paramount'

Being a police chief has been a new and, at times, trying experience for Magnus.

He used to wonder why police chiefs always seemed beleaguered and demoralized. He doesn't wonder anymore.

It's tough to communicate ideas correctly to officers and the public, he said.

And he misses not working a beat: "You can't go back."

But he enjoys being able to make an impact on Fargo and hopes to help its transition into a medium-sized city.

Magnus said he has prepped the police department for this transition by installing more structure, providing centralized leadership and holding officers accountable for what they do all day.

He formalized a way for residents to submit complaints about officers and incidents. He restructured the department so if an officer does something wrong and fully admits what happened, Magnus reduces the discipline time to send a message.

"Our honesty and trust is such a paramount thing," he said.

Once, as a Lansing patrolman, Magnus witnessed officers from another jurisdiction slam a suspect face-first into a metal car frame and punch him in the face.

Magnus was appalled but hesitant to expose the officers.

"There's a thin blue line," he said. "You rely on officers for backup, and sometimes your life depends on them."

If he reported on the officers' actions, he would take heat on both sides -- the Lansing Police Department would want the issue to go away for political reasons, and Magnus' co-workers would feel defensive about their actions around him.

Magnus decided to disclose the officers' actions.

"They committed a crime, for God's sake!" Magnus said.

Ethics are like weight-lifting -- you've got to start with smaller things to be fit enough to deal with the big ethical dilemmas, he said.

Around the office

Magnus' days begin at about 7 a.m. in his office, reading and returning e-mails, catching up on paper work.

His office door remains open so he can see people coming and going, he said.

Inside, '80s pop music plays from a small radio on his desk. A photograph of a bear amid leaves hangs on one wall and a Detroit Red Wings poster hangs on another. Children's drawings hang on his cabinets along with New Yorker cartoons. Two plants divide his desk from his filled bookcase.

For a while, Magnus kept in touch with friends and former colleagues in Lansing by e-mailing them weekly "Fargo journals" -- observations and stories about the cold weather and cultural differences, said Johnson, his former boss.

"They were always a delight to get," he said. Magnus "is very literate."

Magnus also keeps a journal as well as articles written about him and the police department.

"Writing is cathartic for me," he said. "It's a good way to put things in perspective."

Magnus has a sturdy, 6-foot-2 build, but almost seems small while sitting, slightly slumped, in a chair around a table.

Today he's wearing a police uniform he picked out in 2000 after condemning the old police attire as unprofessional. Fargo officers' former uniforms, with their baggy, pocket-laden pants, would have been fine for mechanics, he said. For cops, "it looked like hell.''

Sometimes Magnus wears ties and silk shirts or T-shirts and khakis, depending on whether he's planning to attend a function as a representative of the police department.

During the day, he usually attends many meetings, "some good, some bad," and roams the department, checking on things and chatting with officers.

Personal time

Magnus smiles at the mention of hockey and refers to the large, framed Red Wings poster hanging on his wall.

Grimm said she first bonded with Magnus while watching a Stanley Cup playoff game.

"He's passionate about his hockey," Grimm said.

Once, when Magnus was in Grimm's office in Fargo's health department, he took her mouse pad -- which was emblazoned with the logo of the Colorado Avalanche -- and threw it in the garbage, she said.

Now she has a Red Wings mouse pad which he bought for her.

"Hockey is a metaphor for things," Magnus said.

It has to be a team sport, and yet there are opportunities for individual brilliance, he said.

Even teams loaded with superstars can't win if they don't have the right kind of leadership.

Magnus occasionally goes to Grand Forks, N.D., to watch hockey games but said it just isn't the same as watching the Red Wings in Joe Louis Arena.

He visits Lansing every couple of months, goes away on the weekends, and spends time with his German shepherd, Kozzie -- who was found on an interstate after being abused and abandoned -- and his Dalmatian, Tag.

When asked how he relaxes, he said, "By venting to the right people at the right times" and by having a sense of humor.

Some of those friends are in Lansing, where his parents still live; many are in Fargo, where he has a group of close friends -- maybe too close. Should he get too comfortable, he worries he may have a hard time knowing when it's the right time to move on.

Magnus has already been in Fargo for four years and said he doesn't know how long he will to stay.

"When I came here, I didn't commit to a particular tenure," he said.

If his goal is to preside over a larger department, it will happen, Johnson said. "He has the talent."

Last October, Magnus flew to Vancouver, Wash., to interview for the police chief position. He withdrew his application hours before someone else was chosen.

In a written statement, Magnus said he let Vancouver officials know how much he enjoyed working in Fargo.

Johnson said Magnus never said anything negative in his e-mails about Fargo and that he never seemed to regret having come to the city.

Fargo city officials expect Magnus to move on at some point.

"We had some discussion about a five-year plan for Chris" when he first started with the city, said Pat Zavoral, Fargo's city administrator.

Overall, Zavoral said he's "very happy" with how Magnus has done as police chief.

"He has a charming personality," he said.

The police department has lost some veteran cops and their years of experience since Magnus became chief, said Tom McDonald, a North Dakota State University criminology professor who was on the committee that chose Fargo's police chief in 1999.

Yet is also has become more dynamic under Magnus' supervision, McDonald said. "It's gotten more sensitive to what the community wants."

When Magnus came to Fargo, a growing city with a low crime rate, he said he was excited to work on reducing potential problem spots in the area.

Fargo is at the same place in growth and development as Lansing was 10 to 15 years ago, Magnus said. In Lansing, drugs, crime and racism were so entrenched in the city's structure that it was hard for police to work proactively.

Magnus said he may want to move on to different challenges at some point -- whether going to a bigger police department or entering full time into community activism.

As for now, he said, change takes time. Plus, he enjoys working in Fargo.

"Communities get the police departments they deserve," he said.

"I think this is a pretty nice community and a pretty strong police department."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Lisa Schneider at (701) 241-5529

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