Police chief fights battle of the ages
By R.E. Graswich
Mayor Darrell Steinberg calls Daniel Hahn the “best police chief” in the United States. The praise comes with a hyperbole warning. The U.S. has about 12,300 police departments, which means maybe Steinberg overlooked someone better than Hahn.
Or not. This time, the mayor could be right.
It’s not easy to win support from a mayor who tries to withhold funds from your police department. But that’s Steinberg. He wants it both ways. The mayor can gush about his favorite police chief while arguing against requests for police hiring, training and internal affairs.
Hahn gets it. He doesn’t care whether elected officials like him or not. He takes direction from one man—City Manager Howard Chan—who implicitly trusts his police chief. What Hahn really wants is for people to hear what he has to say.
He’s been saying a lot. Making links between civil unrest over the killing of George Floyd and the attack on the U.S. Capitol, Hahn raises his voice to address racism’s smoldering legacy. His words bring epic events home when he discusses tensions between race and power in Sacramento.
In a tour-de-force speech to City Council, Hahn said he’s compelled to publicly affirm his love of city and country because, “I regularly hear that the only reason I’m police chief in my home town after 33 years of policing is because I am Black.”
Comparing last summer’s Floyd protests to January’s Capitol riot, Hahn said, “Often protestors are told, if you don’t like it, get out of our country. Yet, when a mostly White group, some carrying the battle flag of the confederacy, wearing T-shirts glamorizing some of the worst atrocities in world history, constructing a noose hanging from gallows, yelling racial slurs at Capitol police officers, defecating and urinating in the halls of our United States Capitol, breaking into the offices of our elected officials, stealing property, damaging property, and threatening to hang and kill our elected representatives, and actually assaulting and killing police officers, many of us call this group patriots.”
Violence will continue until we confront “the issues of race and difference,” he predicted.
Hahn tackles topics that address the role of police—from the history of slave hunters to the spread of White supremacists. “They can’t shut me up,” he says. “My mom didn’t teach me to know my place.”
At the same time, Hahn has worked with university researchers and criminal justice experts to study and reform Sac Police. Reforms include training and recruiting. As budgets shrink, the work will require years and continue after Hahn retires.
The state’s gilded pension system means Hahn’s paycheck increases when he retires. He’s already eligible to step down and loses money by sticking around. “As long as I’m not completely worn out and as long as I can work to reverse things that have haunted this country since the beginning, I’ll keep going,” he says.
A North Sacramento man named Merv Brookings illustrates how Hahn has changed the police department. Brookings started Brother 2 Brother, a support group for incarcerated men, former inmates and teens vulnerable to criminal pathways. Hahn saw the link between Brother 2 Brother and Sac PD: People arrested by cops were Brother 2 Brother’s clients and staff. Now they work together.
“We’re partners with Sac PD,” Brookings says. “Every academy class that comes through, we give presentations of voices from the community. We show them the neighborhoods they’ll be serving in. The cadets do eight hours of cleaning up, having lunch and getting to know community members.”
Sacramento had a reform-minded police chief before. In 1993, Mayor Joe Serna recruited Arturo Venegas, a former Fresno motorcycle cop, as a change agent. Reforms were minor, mostly tied to retirements of old-school cops. Venegas was fired in 2003.
Hahn moved up under Venegas, but learned ugly lessons. As an African-American with ambition, he was accused of relying on race to get ahead. As a Black cop, he was accused of selling out. He became “completely comfortable” in his skin.
Two decades later, Sacramento has something remarkable—maybe the nation’s best police chief.
R.E. Graswich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.com.