PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Tucson Police Chief and former PERF Board Member Chris Magnus about several topics:

  • The in-custody death of Carlos Ingram-Lopez, and Chief Magnus’s offer to resign after making the video footage public
  • Embedding mental health clinicians in Tucson’s 9-1-1 center
  • Demonstrations
  • COVID-19
  • His outlook on the future of policing.


In-custody death of Carlos Ingram-Lopez

On April 21, Tucson officers responded to a call from the grandmother of 27-year-old Carlos Ingram-Lopez, who reported that her grandson was drunk and behaving erratically. Officers arrived, followed him into a garage, and restrained him. He struggled with officers, and they held him down. Eventually he became unconscious. Officers tried to revive him, but he died at the scene. When body camera footage was released in June, the three responding officers resigned before they could be fired. Chief Magnus also offered to resign, but the mayor asked him not to.

Chuck Wexler: What did you take away from that incident?

Chief Magnus: We’ve always thought it was necessary and appropriate to provide the public with information about officer-involved shootings. We’ve been pretty efficient about doing that. In most cases, within a day or two we’re releasing body-worn camera footage.

But I think the process for making information about in-custody deaths public has been a little different. In part that’s because historically there’s been a definition of those deaths that includes a lot of different situations, such as SWAT surrounding a house where someone had barricaded themselves and then shot themselves, as well as other situations where individuals took their lives and we didn’t have much involvement or presence. We’re reluctant to release information about suicides.

These in-custody deaths would have and should have merited release to the public, but there was some confusion at several ranks within the department about whether we needed to be given as much information as we should have received, and whether the urgency of what the video showed should have resulted in us seeing it early on.

Having said that, I still ultimately have responsibility for those missteps within the organization. We should have had clearer policies in place requiring us to look at video footage of our involvement in any in-custody death, particularly where force was used. My offer to resign was in response to that. I have to take responsibility if we don’t have clear policies or training in place to accomplish something that the community rightfully expects. That’s why I offered my resignation. I was grateful, of course, that it was not accepted.

We moved forward as expeditiously as possible to improve our policies and protocols, to make sure that the command staff is briefed and we see the video footage right away. And we make public notifications on these, regardless of the circumstances, as quickly as possible and certainly no later than 72 hours.

Wexler: Are there now different expectations about what the chief executive of a large agency should know?

Chief Magnus: I often have to rely on the judgment of a lot of other people to get information. If there are missteps anywhere along the way, I am in the dark about a situation or the seriousness of a situation.

Body cameras being so prevalent adds to the complexity of the situation. Somebody can describe a situation to you, but if you don’t see the actual body camera footage, you are dependent on their assessment of how serious the incident was and how it might be perceived by others. And sometimes their assessment is way off.

In this case, we at an administrative level did not appreciate the seriousness of this situation until the medical examiner’s reports came back, which was about two months later. It caught the attention of some of our upper-level folks, who thought it was something we should look at further. They looked at the video and they immediately brought it to our attention to tell us we had a problem. We were the ones who brought this forward to the public, so there was no intent to hide this from anybody. We saw there was a problem, and we immediately identified that it was something we needed to be forthcoming about.

The problem is that if there is a communications misstep within a department or somebody at a lower rank gets it wrong in terms of perceiving the seriousness of a problem, the department and the chief are assumed to have engaged in some kind of cover-up. If mistakes are made at any level, and there are mistakes sometimes in any large organization, and they result in something not coming forward immediately, the assumption is that there’s a deliberate attempt to cover it up.

So often in government, and I’m sure this is true in other organizations as well, the fact isn’t that there was some attempt to cover up. It’s more that we’re not always terribly efficient, mistakes are made, and we don’t always have the exact protocols we need in place. It’s less about some sort of nefarious motive, and more that we just haven’t gotten it right.


Embedding Mental Health Clinicians in the 9-1-1 Center

Wexler: We recently spoke with one of your assistant chiefs, Kevin Hall, about your practice of embedding a mental health clinician in your 9-1-1 center. How does this improve your response, and how does it fit into your overall policing strategy?

Chief Magnus: I think it’s very relevant, particularly given the ongoing discussion about defunding the police and shifting money to social services. Most of those discussions are really about whether there’s work that could be handled by people other than the police, and if other service providers might be better than the police at handling certain calls and situations.

I push back on an “either/or” approach, where it’s either the police or a clinician responding to a call. I prefer to look at it as putting the right work in the right hands, and those hands need to work together to provide community members with the best service.

There are many circumstances involving persons in mental health crisis where it may be entirely appropriate not to send the police, because a clinician can better direct them back to their own mental health service provider. Or we have a group of mobile crisis folks who often go out separately from the police. They’re often perfectly fine, depending on their familiarity with the individual and the circumstances of the call. They’re often the exact right people to go out and handle a situation, and there’s no need to send the police.

A clinician in the 9-1-1 center helps triage those calls, and, by talking to the individuals or family members calling in, helps figure out the right response. They can resolve it on the phone themselves sometimes. They can sometimes resolve it by sending out other mental health clinicians without the police. Or they can make a determination that it really is necessary for the police to respond, but a clinician may come in once the situation is deemed safe.

There aren’t too many social workers or clinicians who want to respond to calls for service alone, especially calls with the potential for violence or weapons. It’s a matter of finding the right combination of people and identifying what the right response looks like. I think that can often be done best at the point where the call comes in, which is typically the 9-1-1 center.



Wexler: Have you had demonstrations in Tucson?

Chief Magnus: We’ve had a number of demonstrations. Certainly not at the level of places like Portland or Seattle, but the demonstrations and protests have been challenging to deal with nonetheless. The overall desire of the community is for us to facilitate peaceful protests, and they prefer that police take a low-profile role whenever possible when dealing with protesters. But that’s challenging when there’s protester conduct, even if it involves a small number of protesters, that results in property damage or violence toward police officers. Then finding the right balance becomes difficult.

I think we’ve been creative about trying to bring our Neighborhood Response Team officers into protest situations early to talk to protesters, get a sense of the crowd’s mood, and try to build some relationships and trust, when possible. We try to identify who problem people may be early on, so that we can keep a closer eye on them during an incident. And we try to win over members of the protest group to the idea that it’s important to keep things as peaceful and nonviolent as possible. Then, to some degree, they can try to police each other.

We’ve had some success with this, but it doesn’t always work. More recently we’ve seen protest groups where everyone refuses to talk to us. They’re very hostile right from the start, and they’re using more sophisticated techniques to avoid any form of cooperation and make life as difficult as possible for us. For example, when they move from one part of the community to another, they’ll take over six lanes of traffic.

There’s nothing easy about this. A diverse group of officers are trying to handle our protests, and I feel particularly for our black officers, who take more abuse than others when they’re out on the protest line. That’s really difficult. I’ve been really impressed with our officers’ professionalism and patience. We’ve been dealing with this in 100-degree plus temperatures, so it’s really tough to be out on the skirmish line or moving with protest groups throughout the city for hours.



Wexler: What impact has COVID-19 had on your department and your city?

Chief Magnus: It’s had a significant impact on both. We’ve had a number of department members who came down with COVID-19, and several had to be hospitalized for lengthy periods of time. It’s been scary from that standpoint.

We’re also in a situation where officers have been doing their jobs out in the community while wearing masks, which is beyond uncomfortable when it’s incredibly hot outside. We have a major university, the University of Arizona, here. Decisions have been made to bring a fair number of those students back onto campus. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that we’re already seeing significant increases in the rate of the virus on and around campus. Now we are being expected to be on the front lines as the “mask police” to address the fact that a lot of the students who are coming into the community from campus are not wearing masks, they’re in close contact with each other, and some are partying in ways that contribute to the spread of the virus. As always, it’s the police who seem to be called front and center to deal with these challenges. It’s difficult, especially when we’ve had a pretty significant outbreak in our communications center and have seen this affect all aspects of our departmental operations.

Much of our work, including detectives and clerical and support staff, has gone virtual, which has its own challenges. People are working from home or only coming in to the office as little as possible on staggered shifts. But when it comes to patrol officers, it can’t work that way. They’re doing briefings outside, and we’ve had to come up with creative ways to do training. Everything has become more challenging, and this is like figuring out how to fly a plane while it’s in the air.


The Future of Policing

Wexler: How do you feel about where policing is now and how we should look to the future?

Chief Magnus: Is it possible to be both excited and profoundly demoralized? I’m excited about the opportunities to do things differently. I think for a long time our profession has needed a push to make much-needed reforms in a host of areas. I don’t think we as a profession have come to terms with the historic role of police, which has not been good, particularly towards persons of color and other minority groups in this country. This reckoning needed to occur.

And for a long time, we’ve also needed to be better listeners when it comes to what the community wants and expects from us. And to do a better job of figuring out what part of the work other service providers should be doing instead of the police. I think these are all positive things, and I think they’re exciting. I think they can help us evolve policing to a better place.

But I think it is also profoundly demoralizing right now. There is almost no tolerance for mistakes, particularly among elected officials, but not just limited to them. There is no tolerance for problems in the profession that the elected officials have contributed to over time, sometimes based on their relationship with unions and contracts they signed off on. There is very little understanding about what police even do, much less the right way to address some of the challenges we face.

I see a lot of good police chiefs who are being shown the door and sometimes unceremoniously kicked out because elected officials and community members don’t understand the complexities of what those chiefs are dealing with and chiefs’ limited control. When you have 50, much less 5,000, officers under your command and control, can you really be responsible for each and every action they take? That is the expectation, and there is very little tolerance for anything that happens that could create controversy or could reflect badly on them in their positions.

You always hear how you’re never an expert in your own community, and you have to go somewhere else to be appreciated for what you know. I think that’s true now more than ever. A lot of us are trying to bring the expertise, experience, and knowledge that we’ve acquired over decades of work in this profession to bear in a positive manner to meet the community’s expectations. Yet it seems like there’s a feeling that the only legitimate help can come from outside the community, or is based on something people have read in the paper, seen on television, or derived from other sources. I see this lack of confidence that elected officials all over the country have in their own chiefs who have tried to make reforms and move things in the right direction. In that sense, it’s demoralizing.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.