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As Sacramento’s first black police chief, Daniel Hahn—who grew up in Oak Park—leads 700 officers and serves a grieving community in the wake of several fatal shootings of black men by police.
Daniel Hahn was drawn to police work because criminal justice classes at Sacramento City College were easier than studying business administration. Also, the pay was $8.14 an hour, which was $5 more than his job at Florin Mall. His plan was to take the money and run. “Actually, it was kind of easy,” he says. “At least, it was easier than my business classes, accounting and macro or microeconomics.”
One day, Nita Evans, a detective and academy staff member from the Sacramento Police Department, came to class. She spoke to students and handed out business cards. “I thought, I’m not like the rest of these chumps; I don’t want to be no cop,” Hahn says. “But they had a physical agility test at Sac High, about two blocks from my house. I passed the test and I called them up and said, ‘How much do you pay?’”
Hahn was 18 when he made the call. He didn’t want to be a cop, but he did have ambitions. Suddenly, the fog that clouds many teenage paths began to clear. Working for the police department would require a detour, but it would enable greater plans. “I thought, shoot. I’ll be rich. I’ll go to the academy, become a Community Service Officer, then I’ll quit the police department, start my own business and go be a teacher.”
Life hasn’t quite worked out that way. Hahn, 50, went to the police academy, became a CSO and a police officer. He received generous salary bumps under civil service protocols, which made him comfortable but not rich. By 2011, he was the captain responsible for public safety in the city’s North Area. He quit to become chief of the Roseville Police Department. When he returned to Sacramento this past August, it was to run the agency he never wanted to join. He became the 45th chief of the Sacramento Police Department, the first black person to hold the job.
“I thought about quitting from the day I came on,” Hahn says of his early years. “I didn’t want to be a cop until I was a cop for about nine years. The politics of the police department bothered me. Things were happening for not the right reasons, internally. But then I realized there are politics everywhere, and I decided to stay. It’s good money, and I can do these community-related jobs.”
Today, Hahn’s presence in the chief’s office on Freeport Boulevard can be considered either cruelly ironic or fortunately preordained. He’s the reluctant cop who leads an agency in crisis, thrust into the spotlight for the national debate over police killings of young black men. He straddles the middle ground between besieged cops and an angry community—his cops and his community.
“I can’t imagine going through this without Daniel,” Sacramento City Council member Angelique Ashby says.
In March, two of Hahn’s officers pursued and killed Stephon Clark, 22, in the backyard of his grandmother’s Meadowview home. The officers believed Clark, who was black and suspected of vandalizing cars, pointed a gun at them. The aftermath yielded no gun, just a cellphone.
Hahn knew the Clark killing had the potential to enrage economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, inspire activists, drive protesters into the streets and test the patience, training and resilience of police—all of which happened.
“Since I’ve been alive, there’s never been anything like this in Sacramento,” Hahn says. “It’s unprecedented times. There are officers who have shown tremendous professionalism and restraint in the face of some really trying times. There have been a lot of community leaders who have literally stood between really angry protesters and police officers. Without them, probably something (terrible) could have happened.”
Hours after the Clark shooting that chilly March night, Hahn took charge and began to frame his public response. He erased any outward displays of emotion. Whatever feelings Hahn holds for the beleaguered residents of Meadowview and Oak Park and Del Paso Heights (he’s a child of Oak Park, and those feelings are his core), Hahn wanted the community to see only professionalism from its police leadership.
“He called me right away,” says City Manager Howard Chan, recalling the night Clark died. Chan is Hahn’s boss and hired him as chief. “We talked about notifications, getting out a press release, all of the procedural stuff. He goes on autopilot.”
Hahn was on autopilot, but he made bespoke decisions. He chose to quickly release videos from body cameras worn by the officers who shot Clark, even though the video release could have dragged out 30 days or longer under city policy. He made the decision to seek a review from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, even though Becerra’s office has less experience in such investigations than Sacramento Police and the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office. Hahn made both decisions because he favors transparency and public engagement over closed ranks and business as usual. With the videos and independent review, Hahn placed community interests above his agency. “That was all Daniel, 100 percent Daniel,” Chan says. “He made the call. He’s working to build trust with the community.”
After the Clark shooting, Hahn did something else. He began to appear everywhere—on TV, in the press, on radio programs, at City Council meetings, at Starbucks on his way to work—in full uniform, including gun, body armor and body camera, as if he were on a patrol shift. The message was obvious yet nuanced: He’s working for the community, but he’s still a cop.
“The fact that he’s wearing his full uniform, including body cam, is very smart,” says retired Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness. “That sends a powerful message to the troops that he’s one of them and he’s ready to stand with them.”
Stephon Clark’s death followed Sacramento Police killings of two other black men, Dazion Flenaugh and Joseph Mann, in April and July of 2016. The Flenaugh and Mann shootings were separate and unique and part of a troubling pattern. Both men carried knives. Both failed to obey police commands when they were shot. Legally, police have the right to use deadly force to stop suspects if officers believe their lives are in danger—a sacrosanct bullet point of jurisprudence nearly impossible to disprove. The law protects police but leaves them unaccountable. The previous Sacramento police chief, Sam Somers Jr., announced his retirement two months after Mann died. The chief said he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Somers was everything Hahn is not: a legacy cop whose father spent 30 years with Sac PD, schooled in the police culture of bleeding blue. But when Somers retired, he left a police department his dad would not have recognized. Beyond the community anger stoked by the killings of Flenaugh and Mann, Sacramento police in 2016 were crushed by internal turmoil and destitute morale. Salaries had fallen below pay scales at nearby and similar-sized departments. Veterans and rookies applied for police jobs in other cities. Sacramento’s thin blue line was getting thinner as officers felt neglected both politically and financially.
“There were two reasons why people were leaving: lack of leadership and lack of pay,” says Tim Davis, president of the Sacramento Police Officers Association. “The city realized that and rectified it with a new contract and the hiring of Chief Hahn.”
From his secure perch in Roseville, Hahn was disturbed by the troubles at Sac PD. In some ways, he never left Sacramento and didn’t treat Roseville as a final stop. Before Hahn, Roseville had never employed even one black police officer, much less a black chief. “Now there are five of us there,” Hahn says. “If you can do it in Roseville, you can surely do it in Sacramento. But you have to want to do it.”
As Roseville’s chief, Hahn still freelanced for Sac PD. He quietly helped detectives contact witnesses after shootings in Del Paso Heights. “I did that three or four times,” he says. “Because I worked so long in the Heights, people there don’t really look at me as a police officer. I’m Daniel to them. I’ve played on softball teams. I’ve served Thanksgiving dinner. When I was in Roseville, I’d go to the Grant football games and stand on the sideline. That’s the key. Too many times officers are looked at like robots or nonhuman things. Part of my job is to have situations where officers’ hearts can show, so they aren’t looked at as this robotic police officer. They are actual people.”
Hahn thinks a lot about people. He wants officers and community members to see beyond skin color and taste in music and economic status and badges and guns—to collectively realize we are the same species. “When I was North Area captain, I would tell roll calls, ‘You need to drive down Ms. Johnson’s street, not Elm Street. It has to be Ms. Johnson’s street. Then you will care about it.’ If you know the people you are serving and you care about the people you are serving, we wouldn’t have any of these problems. That takes time, and there’s no way for you to know every single person in the neighborhood, but there’s a way for you to know a lot of them. How do we create those opportunities for our officers? That’s my job as chief.”
Humanistic theories about unconscious racial and economic bias rarely impress cops, but they run deep in Hahn. When he was a young officer at Sac PD, some veterans considered him less than a real cop—he was a police officer who behaved like a social worker. He preferred community-style policing, getting to know people, building trust, preventing trouble before it happened. When Hahn graduated from Sacramento State, he earned a teaching credential. He started a Sac PD program teaching criminal-justice classes at Grant High School. As a captain, he created a Youth Services Division.
The ability to be a social worker with a badge and to work community assignments kept Hahn from quitting. “I never thought police did those kinds of jobs,” he says. “In my neighborhood, not only did we not care much for cops, but we assumed that as a cop, all you do is drive around in a black-and-white squad car and arrest people. That was not super appealing. But once I got in, I did all sorts of completely different things.”
The Hahns on vacation in Minnesota
Oak Park was Hahn’s original neighborhood. His family selected Oak Park because of its diversity. His mother, Mary Jean Hahn, wanted young Daniel to be raised among black people. It was a startling choice but classic Mary Jean: She was a headstrong white woman who, with her white husband, Ken, adopted Daniel when he was 3 months old. Mary Jean had read that babies of mixed race—Hahn’s birth father was black, his birth mother white—were less enticing to adoptive parents. The Hahn family already had two biological children, a boy and a girl. The third would be adopted, biracial and named for a biblical prophet.
Mary Jean Hahn with Daniel at the swearing-in ceremony in August 2017
They moved into an old, sprawling home, built around 1908, on Second Avenue. Bunk beds were erected in a back bedroom for Daniel and his brother. Life was not blissful. When Daniel was 5, Ken Hahn died. Mary Jean remarried, but her second husband died while Daniel attended Sacramento High School. And Daniel was not perfect. He struggled in high school and one day became frustrated with his mother and broke some furniture. Mary Jean called police. Daniel resisted officers and was transported to juvenile hall, where he spent a few hours cooling off. Spirited but never too stubborn to learn, he was his mother’s child.
Daniel graduated from Sacramento High School in 1986
Mary Jean died this past February at age 78. Years before, she refused to sell the house on Second Avenue. Instead, she gave it away. Daniel’s old bedroom is now used by the group City of Refuge as a dorm for young women escaping the streets. “I always carry my mom in the back of my head, nagging at me and trying to get me to do the right thing,” Hahn says. “I don’t know if I’ve done it consciously, but I’ve always worked in assignments that help people to do better. That’s what I saw every day in my mom’s house growing up.”
When Hahn looks at his current house and family (wife Katrina, a teacher, and daughters aged 11 and 13), he sees the benefits of decent education, strong parenting, good health and steady employment. He thinks about families not so lucky, such as the families of Stephon Clark, Joseph Mann and Dazion Flenaugh.
Daniel Hahn with his wife, Katrina and daughters, Faith and Francesca
“I look at this through the lens of my daughters,” Hahn says. “For nothing my daughters have done, other than solely to whom they were born to, every night they are busy. Tonight, my wife will drop them off at practice, and I’ll go there, and we’ll get home about 8:30. They will get home and take a shower and we’ll sit on the couch for a few minutes, and they will go to bed and do it all again tomorrow. But soccer costs $2,500. Volleyball is $2,500. If you don’t have the funds and you are living in Meadowview, what are you doing? What are your kids doing?”
The police chief is asking the right questions, says Pastor Mark Meeks of City Church in Oak Park. But the answers require more than enlightened cops. Sacramento must address fundamental differences that separate economically disadvantaged communities from their affluent neighbors. “People are disconnecting from society because they look around and see nothing in it for them,” Meeks says. “Police are in the middle of that. We can have another commission and go around knocking down spider webs, but until we kill the spider, the webs will come back.”
Hahn sees his job as teaching police to respect differences between people, whether they pay $2,500 for soccer or have a father in prison. The work requires Hahn to overcome generations of mistrust, bigotry, lies and violence. “I’ve been called an Uncle Tom, a sellout, just because I’m a police officer,” he says. “A lot of our black officers in recent weeks have been called many of those names. We have to go out and recruit folks, but in the African-American community, people are more likely to say, ‘Why would I want to be a police officer?’”
When Hahn hears that question, he reflects back on himself. He was handcuffed at 16. In college, he wasn’t like those other chumps and didn’t want to be no cop. Now he’s responsible for the morale and management of more than 700 cops—and their relationships with the people they are sworn to protect.
“In our country, we have a problem with differences, whether it’s race or disabilities, gay or not gay, religion, Muslim, not Muslim; we have a problem with that,” he says. “And that’s not exclusive to law enforcement. It’s society. The thing with law enforcement is, we have more power than anybody. We can shoot you. But we hire from society.”
To resolve those differences and hire the right people, Hahn has no textbook or roadmap. The solutions will be found in the values Mary Jean Hahn passed along to her son.
“I’m just trying to do what my momma did,” he says. “I didn’t always follow what she said, but she was right.”