Marcos Bretón

How a white woman from Minnesota raised Sacramento’s first black police chief

When Daniel Hahn was sworn in Friday as the new police chief of Sacramento, his mother Mary was at his side. She’s always been at his side, and in his heart, in his face, in his business, in his conscience – the guiding force of his life.


Some of us hope for inspiration from our better angels. Daniel Hahn considers his mother his better angel.

“Who I am is my mother,” said Hahn, 49, who became Sacramento’s 45th chief at a swearing-in ceremony at Sacramento State University, his alma mater, at 3 p.m. Friday. “I’m not as good a person as she is, but everything good about me is from her, that’s for sure.”

Sacramento residents have 78-year-old Mary Hahn to thank for first adopting and then raising the man whose values and people skills are what got him hired as the right person to run a troubled department.

Many news stories announcing Hahn’s hiring as Sacramento’s chief focused on his racial background because no one like Hahn has ever led the department, which has been criticized for its lack of diversity.

Hahn is set to become the city’s first African American police chief. His mother is white, and her upbringing led her son to transcend racial barriers. She taught him to love people based on who they were, not how they looked.

She moved him to Oak Park – an enclave of African American families who have lived in Sacramento for generations – because she wanted her son to know and embrace other people who looked like him.

Mary befriended African American families in Oak Park and encouraged the families to look upon her son as their son. Hahn invited several matriarchs of Oak Park to share in his swearing-in ceremony – ladies who were also like moms to him.

“Oak Park raised Daniel,” Mary said. “It wasn’t just me.”

It’s true. There were neighbors and pastors and teachers and coaches from the neighborhood who formed bonds with the future chief because his mom encouraged it. A constellation of friends and relatives packed the main ballroom at Sac State to watch Hahn get sworn in, many of whom feel a close bond with the new chief.

“Daniel is very approachable, he doesn’t look down his nose at others,” said Charles Garrison, a longtime friend of the Hahn family. “He gets that from his mother. She’s for the underdog so Daniel never grew up thinking he was all that.”

Their mother-son bond began when Hahn was a baby, an orphan, put up for adoption by a mixed race couple attending Humboldt State University. They were young and couldn’t cope with the responsibilities born of a brief, intimate relationship. Hahn’s biological father was African American. His biological mother was white. It was 1968 and, according to Mary, the prospects of adoption for mixed-race babies were bleak.

“I read an article in Life Magazine that said that mixed-race babies were the least likely to be adopted, along with special needs babies,” she said.

Born and raised in rural Minnesota, Mary already had a biological daughter with special needs. She also had a son with no physical or developmental issues. She said she felt she had love to share and started the adoption process.

The first time she laid eyes on the dark-haired baby with the warm smile, Mary knew he was destined to become her son. “He made eye contact with us and he said, ‘Ah!” she said.

The birth certificate listed the baby’s name as Lawrence Warmsley, which was also the name of his biological father. He became Daniel Hahn when Mary and her husband Kenneth took their baby home. He was named for the prophet Daniel, who, according to scripture, survived being thrown into the lion’s den because of his strong faith.

One could say that Hahn also is a man of faith being thrown into the lion’s den – a metaphorical one made up of police-union politics, civilian unrest over recent controversial shootings and a worked-up City Council placing many demands on the department Hahn inherits.

It won’t be easy, but then nothing has been in the Hahn family.

While raising her kids, Mary was widowed twice. On her birthday in 1992, Mary’s step-son Chris Castle – the son of her second husband Glen Castle – was killed downtown near the corner of 19th and G streets. Daniel had shared a room with Chris when they were kids. By the time of Chris’ murder, Daniel was a Sacramento police officer assigned to downtown. Though he wasn’t officially dispatched to the call, he responded anyway when descriptions of the scene over police communication channels gave him a bad feeling. He showed up in full uniform, his worst fears realized.

Mary sought solace in her family and community. She was the organist at Oak Park United Church of Christ and later at Oak Park Methodist Church, her son said. She was a stalwart in community-improvement efforts. She could be seen around Oak Park with a broom, sweeping local streets and disposing trash. Darrell Roberts, now a community activist in North Sacramento, said Mary helped him in his efforts to encourage neighbors to swap bars on their windows for home alarms.

“She helped me with that and there was a time she believed in me more than I believed in myself,” he said.

The Hahn family moved to Oak Park when Daniel, then 3, wondered aloud why an African American woman at a grocery store had hair that “looked funny,” Mary said. “She had an Afro. I thought, ‘Look in the mirror, kid.’”

Mary was strong enough to not feel threatened when Oak Park moms doted on her son. When Daniel wanted to meet his biological parents, she arranged it by helping track them down. Daniel became close with his biological father before he died. Hahn said he was very sensitive about his mother’s feelings during that time; she once told him the experience caused to her to have nightmares about an African American person snatching her baby out of a carriage.

“The fact that she had those feelings and still wanted me to meet him says a lot about her,” Hahn said.

He never met his biological mother because she died young and her family wanted nothing to do with him. “They were pretty racist,” he said without anger. Hahn said he holds no grudges, and would embrace his biological mother’s family if they ever reached out to him.

Why? Because that’s what his mother taught him to do, to be fair but firm. There were people in his Oak Park neighborhood who hurt other people, broke the law. “My mom would be the person who called the police on them and then the next day she would be the person trying to help them,” he said.

“I’ve just always listened to the little voice telling me to do something,” Mary said. That voice told her to give away Daniel’s childhood home in Oak Park in 1993, instead of selling it, because she wanted a young family she knew to live in it.

At that time, Rosalee Hagstrom was like the young mother Mary had been. She and her husband loved Oak Park and were involved in the community. So Mary gave them them her house so they could raise a family and do good works in the neighborhood. They did. With gentrification sparking in Oak Park, Mary could have sold her house for a nice sum, but she said she prefers the payoff she received.

“When she did that for us, she changed the trajectory of our lives,” Hagstrom said.

By raising Daniel to become who he is, Mary changed the trajectory of a police department and a city. The new chief strives to be open-hearted and open-minded. He’s seen good and bad in neighborhoods and wants to be part of it all. He wants to take care of communities as his mother did.

“We live in a world of dingbats and angels, a mixture of people and problems, and how could you ever wish that responsibility (of being police chief) on anyone?” Mary said. “On the other hand, it’s his destiny. ... The spirits move you in strange ways and you don’t question it. You just go with it.

Marcos Bretón: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton

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