Marcos Bretón

New police chief breaks the mold – not just because he is black

Sacramento's first black police chief aims to heal embattled department

Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton talks with Daniel Hahn, Sacramento's next police chief, about growing up in Oak Park, being a cop in the town where he grew up and the strong influence of his mother.
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Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton talks with Daniel Hahn, Sacramento's next police chief, about growing up in Oak Park, being a cop in the town where he grew up and the strong influence of his mother.

Daniel Hahn is unlike any man who has served as Sacramento chief of police.

It’s not just that he’s black, though he will be the first African American police chief in the city’s history. (His selection won’t be official until a background check is finished in four to six weeks.)

City officials say Hahn’s race didn’t even crack the top five reasons why the current Roseville chief, 49, was picked for Sacramento’s top job. Nor does Hahn’s race begin to describe all the qualities that set him apart from his predecessors.

For generations, Sacramento police chiefs had either followed their fathers’ footsteps into law enforcement, had previously served in the military, or had worked their entire careers in Sacramento before landing the top job, or all of the above.

Hahn is none of the above.

His future as the head of a large urban police department would have seemed unlikely when he was 16. That year, he was briefly taken into custody by cops from the same department he would later be tapped to lead. His mother, Mary Jean, was scolding him for not doing well in school, and he responded with a teenage temper tantrum that included punching a wall. Hahn says she called the police, and he was cuffed, booked for resisting arrest and held at juvenile hall for four hours before being released.

Hahn describes that experience as an act of love by his mom, who had largely raised Daniel and his siblings alone in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood after her husband died when he was five. He is not embarrassed or insecure about discussing his teenage brush with the law.

Back then, Hahn had no thought of wanting to be a cop – and certainly no thought of becoming a police chief.

“If you had talked to anyone when I first started as a police officer that I would be chief, they would have laughed at you,” Hahn said. “If you had talked to anyone at my high school that I would be a cop, they would have laughed at you.”

His career in law enforcement germinated when he was a student at Sacramento City College, and a friend suggested he take a criminal justice class. He did, but only because the class fulfilled a general education requirement – and because his friend told him it would be easy.

When a Sacramento police recruiter visited his class, Hahn twice said no when the recruiter tried to hand him her business card. He only took it because he didn’t want to appear rude. He only agreed to take a police agility test because it was being held two blocks from his home at Sacramento High School, his alma mater.

He only agreed to go to the police academy because it paid $8.14 an hour, more than he was making in the stock room at the old Kauffman’s men’s clothing store at Florin Mall. Hahn always thought that law enforcement was a transitional job on his way to either being a teacher or opening his own business.

Although Sacramento State has a distinguished criminal justice program, Hahn never bothered to change his major. He graduated from Sac State in 1995 with a degree in business administration. That was nine years after he had graduated from high school.

What Hahn didn’t realize then was that a community of people was growing around him. What he didn’t realize then was that his connection to community in Sacramento would become his life’s calling. That community of people would keep him in law enforcement for good. It would correct him when he needed correcting, and it would fill him with the belief that law enforcement was about community. And yes, Hahn’s connection to Oak Park and Sacramento would be the primary reason for his selection as chief.

“Daniel Hahn will be the guy who shepherds us through the evolution that law enforcement is going through,” said City Manager Howard Chan.

Chan picked Hahn even though some critics said he should hire a chief with no previous connection to the Sacramento police.

Maybe if the timing were different, he would have. Aside from their credentials, all the candidates vying for Sacramento’s chief were judged by two criteria: Would they be a good fit for Sacramento’s department and would the timing of their hiring be right?

A fresh perspective might have helped the department address community concerns and suspicions following a series of high-profile cases that fanned concerns about excessive force, especially in the black community. But at the same time, low morale among officers and a looming contract fight with the police union created concerns about hiring an unknown.

Enter Hahn, who is something of a hybrid. He has a long history in the Sacramento police. He served for more than 20 years before leaving for Roseville. But he hasn’t worked for Sacramento in six years – enough time to give him some fresh perspective.

Hahn also was the first African American chief in Roseville. That distinction made him nervous then. After his selection, he noticed Twitter posts referring to him with the N-word.

“You would think in 2011 that wouldn’t happen anymore, but ...” he said.

Hahn also encountered a department used to running the way it had always run, a place where people sometimes worked covertly to undermine him, said Ray Kerridge, the former Roseville city manager who held the same job in Sacramento.

“Daniel wanted to be Mr. Nice Guy, and when you’ve been in this business long enough, you realize that is a luxury you can’t afford,” Kerridge said. “You had people who were in favor (of Hahn), those opposed and those in the middle who were waiting to see how it all shook out.”

Hahn said he put up with some people on his team who were not 100 percent committed to improving the department, a mistake he said he won’t make again. During rough days, Hahn relied for counsel on the same group of African American cops who had been his mentors in Sacramento.

“From the moment you met him, you could tell he was a brother,” said Cecil Callender, a retired Sacramento police lieutenant who was a pioneer African American officer in Sacramento. “In my generation of black cops, we wanted to be out in the community, and you could tell Danny was part of the community.”

In Roseville, Hahn worked on getting his officers out into the community more. He assigned them to beats. He paired social services providers with cops to better confront the homeless and mentally ill, a program Chan said will be replicated in Sacramento. Hahn is also active on social media, and is a prolific speaker at a myriad of community events

“He’s a good cop, an honorable man and he’s doing his job for the right reasons,” Kerridge said.

Hahn came back to Sacramento because it’s his city. He came back because he wants the community that gave him a career to reap a return on its investment.

“I think I have something that can help the men and women of Sacramento police,” he said. “I know there are wonderful people in that department, and it’s my job to put them in positions that allow them to show their heart.”

Is he nervous?

“Any nervousness I have is because this is my city,”he said. “If I’m not successful, would I let down all the people who I know? Are there going to be conflicts with people I’ve known by whole life?”

Key members of his community don’t think so. “When Danny was selected as chief, I had the same feeling I had when Barack Obama was elected,” said Ernie Daniels, a retired Sacramento police captain who also mentored Hahn. “I think our city has hit a home run.”

Votie Patterson says he's been pulled over multiple times by police, which he believes is due to being black and driving a Mercedes-Benz CLK55.

Marcos Bretón: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton

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