Metro Weekly

President Biden nominates gay police chief to lead Customs and Border Protection

Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus has rankled conservatives with some of his views on immigration and police reform.

chris magnus
Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus – Photo: Tucson Police Department.

President Joe Biden has nominated Chris Magnus, a gay man who currently serves as the police chief in Tucson, Arizona, to be the next commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Magnus, who was one of six Homeland Security nominees announced by the White House this week, previously served as the police chief of Richmond, California, and Fargo, North Dakota, prior to his current stint in Tucson. He is married to Terrance Cheung, the former chief of staff to Richmond’s mayor.

According to The New York Times, a White House official said Biden tapped Magnus for the position because of his record reforming police departments in Richmond and Tucson, his embrace of community-policing programs, and because of his experience policing a city close to the U.S.-Mexico border. In his new position, Magnus will be tasked with enforcing immigration laws and devising a solution on how to handle and house a record number of unaccompanied migrant children from Central America who are overwhelming detention facilities.

In recent years, Magnus has become known over the years for his more progressive views with regard to law enforcement and immigration, which may rankle some conservatives who have seized on unquestioning support for law enforcement officers as a political wedge issue.

He previously criticized former President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration in a 2017 op-ed, arguing that the president’s policies were hindering police efforts to promote public safety. In that editorial, he said that harsh anti-immigration policies intimidate members of immigrant communities, or those close to them, from reporting crimes, thus making it harder for police officers to do their jobs.

Tom Homan, a former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told the Times that Magnus’s criticism of Trump would be brought up at his confirmation hearings, potentially hampering his confirmation, and could even make it difficult to gain the support of border agents, many of whom supported Trump’s immigration policies.

Magnus has also expressed his support for the Black Lives Matter movement, provoking criticism of a local police union in Richmond in 2014 after he was photographed holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign at a protest shortly after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

While Magnus has largely cultivated a reputation as a reform-minded leader interested in improving police-community relations and demanding police accountability, and has even been credited with successfully reducing violent crime while serving as chief of the Richmond Police Department, he has also been at the center of several controversies.

See also: Gay former ambassador Rufus Gifford tapped by Biden for State Department post

For instance, conservatives have criticized his reticence to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, with much of the criticism rooted in a 2017 incident when Tucson police declined to assist the Border Patrol after a suspect escaped from custody, according to The Washington Post. The Border Patrol’s union officials called him “an ultraliberal social engineer who was given a badge and a gun by the City of Tucson” in a 2018 Facebook post.

Meanwhile, activists on the left have criticized Magnus for being insufficiently progressive, resisting attempts to make Tucson a sanctuary city, and for an alleged lack of transparency, pointing to his failure to expedite the release of body-camera video showing the death of a 27-year-old Latino man, Carlos Ingram Lopez, who died in police custody.

Magnus attributed the delay to bureaucratic oversight, and even offered to resign as the video was being made public, but the mayor refused to accept his resignation. Three officers involved in the incident also resigned, with Magnus saying he would have terminated them if they had not.

In 2012, a group of Black officers in Richmond filed suit, accusing the police department, under Magnus, of discrimination, but a jury found their allegations to be without merit. In 2015, the city settled a wrongful termination suit brought by an officer who claimed Magnus had sexually harassed him and used racial slurs — charges that Magnus continues to insist were “entirely bogus” and were motivated by the assumption that his sexual orientation made him an easy target for such allegations.

Shortly after his nomination was announced, Magnus said he wants to talk to senators and border patrol agents before offering up policy changes regarding immigration enforcement. 

“I  know much is made of how Border Patrol might feel about my nomination, and I want to say right off that I do recognize that a Border Patrol or customs agent is doing a very difficult job,” he told the Times. “I’m going to be making it a priority to get to know the people doing that job, to learn from them and to try and help them.”

“Sometimes it’s frustrating how hyperpartisan all these issues can become,” Magnus added, “but I want to say from the very start, I am no ideologue and I do want to make a difference on things.”

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