Tucson officials rally behind police chief, reject resignation after in-custody death

Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus, right, and Mayor Regina Romero during a news conference on June 24, 2020, about the death of Carlos Ingram-Lopez of Tucson while in police custody in April. (Photo by Josh Galemore / Arizona Daily Star)

PHOENIX – Tucson officials turned down Police Chief Chris Magnus’ tendered resignation this week after city officials, and even the family of a man who died in police custody, rallied behind the chief.

Magnus’ surprise offer to resign came during a Wednesday news conference about the April death of Tucson resident Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez, 27, while in police custody. Magnus said the offer to resign was meant to show his “willingness to take accountability” for mistakes made in the death, and that city officials could accept or deny the resignation “as they deem appropriate.”

Officials quickly deemed it not appropriate. City Manager Michael Ortega, who has final say on the decision, rejected the resignation Thursday after an outpouring of support for the chief.

Council Member Steve Kozachik, who announced Ortega’s decision in a memo Thursday, said Magnus “has been a model chief for the city of Tucson” since his appointment in January 2016.

“Everyone on the City Council is heartbroken at the loss of life we’ve all viewed in the in-custody video,” Kozachik’s statement said. “There were mistakes made. Nobody has tried to hide that, and all facets of the case have been, and continue to be investigated.”

The investigation comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of – and tension over – police conduct nationally, after the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, one of whom kneeled on Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes despite his pleas that he could not breathe.

Amateur video of Floyd’s death sparked days of protests around the country against police misconduct and what protesters called systemic racism. It led to “defund police” movements in some cities and calls in Congress for police reform legislation.

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Before offering his resignation Wednesday, Magnus pointed out that the Ingram-Lopez death cannot be compared to Floyd’s death. The Tucson officers involved were Black and white, he said, and they did not employ any of the aggressive restraint techniques used against Floyd.

Magnus’ comments came after video of Ingram-Lopez’s April 21 arrest was released to the public this week. It showed Ingram-Lopez lying face-down on the ground for 12 minutes, at one point asking for water that the officers denied, before his death.

An autopsy by the Pima County Medical Examiner revealed that Ingram-Lopez had been put in a spit hood and soon became unresponsive. The autopsy said that “sudden cardiac arrest in the setting of acute cocaine intoxication” and “physical restraint with cardiac left ventricular hypertrophy” were significant contributing conditions to the death.

Police had been called to the scene by a family member who said Ingram-Lopez had been running around and shouting. The three arresting officers – identified in news reports as Jonathan Jackson, Samuel Routledge and Ryan Starbuck – resigned last Friday, although authorities said the officers would have been fired anyway.

Despite the resignations, Council Member Lane Santa Cruz on Wednesday called for aggressive investigation of any deaths in police custody.

“Minimizing the unconscionable behavior of the officers involved is infuriating and dangerous. Shooting and chokeholds are not the only forms of violence,” Santa Cruz said.

But Mayor Regina Romero and others said they did not believe Magnus should resign.

“Chief Magnus has brought forward-thinking changes to TPD policies, practices and trainings, and has built strong relationships with our community since he joined the department in 2016,” Romero said in a statement Thursday.

“I continue to extend my most sincere condolences to the family of Carlos Adrian during this incredibly difficult time for them,” Romero said. “The best way we can honor Carlos Adrian’s memory is by coming together and taking immediate action to build a better, more just community.”

Nate Sigal, senior policy adviser for Romero, said that the mayor fully supports Ingram-Lopez’s family while trying to work toward reform.

“The family of Carlos Adrian had also mentioned that they did not want the chief to resign either, they wanted him to stay and work on reform,” Sigal said.

While she supported keeping Magnus on, Council Member Nikki Lee also said in a statement Wednesday that reform in police departments is “long overdue.”

“We are in the midst of a long overdue national conversation about transparency and accountability in America’s police departments, and an even longer overdue conversation about systemic racism,” Lee said. “Each in-custody death has its own tragic story, and it’s critical that each incident be viewed through the lens of fact and context.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Brett Bavcevic is a Chicago native who expects to graduate in summer 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in English. Bavcevic is a digital news and sports reporter for Cronkite News and has been a digital intern for the Phoenix Suns.