New Sacramento police chief will have a tough job in tense department

Sacramento is interviewing potential police chiefs this week, moving quickly on a pivotal hire intended to fix a department plagued by community mistrust, internal upheaval and deep discord with city leaders.

The new chief will walk into a tough job – attempting to navigate a thin line between anger from rank-and-file officers and calls for continued reforms from community members and some elected officials.

“We’re at a turning point,” said Brent Meyer, a Sacramento police officer and current vice president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, the statewide law enforcement lobbying group. “It’s a really difficult time to do this job, so we need to find someone who is going to do it right."

Depending on whom you ask, Sacramento police have one of two problems that will be dropped in the new chief’s lap.

Some, including the police union and department personnel, say they are a maligned force beleaguered by bad press and low morale. They say they’re desperate for a leader who can advocate for officers and effectively reshape public perception without resorting to unneeded reforms.

Others, including leaders in African American and faith communities, say the Sacramento Police Department is a good-old-boy agency reluctantly forced toward transparency and accountability in the past year by high-profile confrontations caught on video and the resulting community outrage. They want a chief committed to change.

The city received 33 applications for the chief’s position and chose seven to interview – including current Interim Chief Brian Louie and Deputy Chief Ken Bernard, both men confirmed.

Roseville police Chief Daniel Hahn, a former captain in the Sacramento department, is likely also a contender, said people familiar with the search. Four other candidates from outside the area will also be considered.

Sacramento police have been through major reforms in the past year following a controversial shooting of a mentally ill black man – Joseph Mann – in North Sacramento last July. Last November, the City Council passed a series of reform measures, including a more restrictive use-of-force policy, funding for body cameras and a new requirement that video from officer-involved shootings be made public within 30 days.

But the Mann shooting, combined with other use-of-force incidents and acrimony in some minority communities over a perceived bias in how they are policed, has led to calls for further change – and a fear that the wrong chief would curtail momentum.

“The old guard continues to carry over the old way of doing things,” said Ryan McClinton, a community leader for Sacramento Area Congregations Together, an organization advocates for reforms. “This is an opportunity for Sacramento to step forward and say we are not OK with the status quo.”

McClinton said the department has taken “small steps” toward greater transparency and accountability, but he wonders if they have just been political machinations to “massage public perception.”

Police union leader Tim Davis said public perception has been unfairly skewed by media and city leaders. He said Sacramento has one of the best trained and educated law enforcement agencies in the region.

“There seems to be a push to have someone come in and reform the department. The department doesn’t need to be reformed,” said Davis. The next chief needs to “let everyone know what our strengths are. Our officers are desperate for that advocate.”

During the past few years, dozens of Sacramento officers have quit – 20 left in 2016 and 28 are projected to leave this year, according to Louie. He has called it an “exodus” that some say is crippling the force’s ability to police the city and sometimes leaves the department struggling to fill shifts.

Davis said morale in the department is dangerously low in part because of eroding public perception and because Sacramento police are paid less than those in nearby agencies like the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. In August, The Sacramento Bee reported that the average total pay for a Sacramento police officer was $92,762, second-lowest among eight local police departments. Sacramento police officers were given a one-time bonus of $2,150 apiece by the City Council in March to acknowledge the pay gap.

The city is in negotiations with the union now, with the current contract set to expire in June. Pay is a major topic, said those familiar with talks.

Some businesspeople and civic leaders worry that officers – reacting to low pay and the possibility of public censure – are backing off from enforcing the law. They fear Sacramento may experience the “Ferguson effect” – a rise in crime that some law-and-order advocates attributed to police being hesitant to make arrests due to public hostility after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Christena O’Shea, a former Sacramento police officer who worked at the department until 2014, according to a public salary database maintained by Transparent California, posted about that sentiment on the SPD Underground, an unauthorized Facebook site frequented by current and former Sacramento police officers and dispatchers.

“When there’s no backing by public officials and the general public, it’s not worth risking your life anymore” O’Shea wrote on Jan. 31 in response to a post about officers in the Mann shooting being cleared of wrongdoing by the Sacramento County district attorney.

O’Shea declined a Facebook message request to comment further. An analysis of the website by The Bee cross-referenced with pay records found about three dozen active and former Sacramento officers and dispatchers using the Facebook page. As of Friday, it had 236 followers.

The Facebook page also talks about Steinberg. The police union didn’t support the mayor during his campaign, and rank-and-file animosity toward him has grown in recent months as he’s spoken forcefully about the need for further changes in policing.

“He’s a liberal politician that’s not going to support cops. He’s divisive and disgraceful for a community such as Sacramento that loves its cops,” posted Jerry Thomason on the SPD Underground page on Feb. 17. Thomason identifies himself as retired from Sacramento police on his personal Facebook page.

Thomason did not respond to a request for comment.

In this polarized atmosphere, the question of whether the new chief should come from within or outside the department has taken on particular significance.

Some on the force say that bringing in an outside chief would worsen the situation and prove their perception that Steinberg and other city leaders don’t support the department. They say hiring from within is the only way to restore confidence among the rank and file.

“The Police Department doesn’t need so much a fixer but someone who understands the history of the Sacramento Police Department,” said Meyer.

The department has a history of hiring from within. It has only brought in an outsider once – Arturo Venegas in 1993. He was a reformer who pushed community policing – a mandate the next chief will likely also have.

“Venegas, when he was there, was a good leader,” said Mark Harris, a lawyer and founder of Law Enforcement Accountability Directive, a major backer of local police reforms. “He was accessible, and he was responsible.”

But Venegas was not liked by officers.

“Art was a necessary change agent,” said retired Deputy Chief Matt Powers, who worked for Venegas and other chiefs during his 23 years with the department. “But he didn’t know how to engage with street cops and detectives.”

Powers cautioned that another outside chief could face similar pushback if they weren’t able to get buy-in from the force.

“You bring somebody from the outside, they can bring a lot of wonderful ideas in just like Art did … but you’ve got to win over the hearts and minds of the men and women on the street.”

Hostility toward an outsider is already brewing on SPD Underground.

“How will bringing in an outsider impact the department you may ask? … it will have an immense negative impact,” reads an anonymous post from the site administrator on April 10, responding to the city’s hiring brochure for the position.

A Facebook message requesting comment from the SPD Underground site administrator was not answered.

Louie, who took over the department in December and is a 37-year veteran of the force, said his five months as interim chief have given him “a good sense” of what the job involves. If selected, he said, he would continue to push to improve morale along with increasing community engagement, diversity and transparency.

“I’m motivated, and I’ve got the energy and passion for this,” said Louie.

But Louie made a major misstep with elected leaders and city administrators in March when he failed to release video involving a shootout between a parolee and officers in North Sacramento within the mandated 30 days. Offering conflicting reasons, he asked the City Council for an extension without briefing them first. During the March 21 council meeting, multiple council members expressed anger.

Councilman Steve Hansen told Louie it was “frustrating” that city leaders had not been told ahead of time. At the end of a tense debate, Ashby told Louie: “We all made it really clear we never want to see you back here again (for a waiver) unless you have an exact reason.”

Bernard, the deputy chief with 26 years on the force, may have a better chance based on that incident, said sources familiar with the confidential search. He said that he thought the department was in a period of flux where further changes would be required, and said he would focus on a “return to community policing … and getting out of our police cars and having conversations” if he is successful in his bid for the job.

Bernard is widely viewed by city administrators and rank and file as capable and forthright but also old guard, said the sources.

They also said Roseville chief Hahn could be a compromise candidate. He enjoys community respect but is also viewed as an insider by Sacramento officers who used to work with him, making him the choice with the least political risk.

“If it’s a beauty contest then Hahn wins,” said Harris.

Hahn left Sacramento for Roseville in 2011. A south Sacramento resident who grew up in Oak Park, he has strong support in African American communities and with some elected officials, most notably Ashby. Hahn was captain overseeing her Natomas district.

Hahn declined to confirm he had applied, saying he was focused on his current job.

Some in the community said an outsider without ties to the Sacramento Police Department is the stronger choice if the city is serious about reform over appeasement. “I’d say somebody with fresh blood would probably be a better route,” McClinton said.

He and some other activists would like to see a chief brought in with a proven track record of community service and neighborhood policing. They are concerned an internal hire would have too many existing relationships to effectively pursue reforms.

“When you have an internal choice, you run the risk of someone not being as aware of a house that needs to be put in order,” said Harris. “What happens with any one of us is when we are so used to a certain set of circumstances, we don’t see the need for change.”

The City Council does not have an official say in the confidential hiring process, though some candidates have met informally with members of the council. The pressure and power of this hire – and essentially choosing the direction of the force for the next decade – rests in one man’s hands: City Manager Howard Chan.

A panel that includes Chan; Assistant City Manager Arturo Sanchez; Francine Tournour, head of the city’s Office of Public Safety Accountability; and a “sitting chief of a very similar-sized agency” will interview candidates in the next few weeks, said Sanchez. The city has also received about 1,500 responses to a community survey asking for input on characteristics for a chief. That survey is available to take until May 31 on the website for the city’s recruiter at Sanchez said the results would be incorporated in final interview questions.

A final decision is expected in July.

Chan said Friday he has met with officers, community members and elected officials and understands each of their views. Whomever he hires, Chan said he knows it will take time to restore equilibrium and trust within the department and in the communities they police. His goal is to hire a partner, not a subordinate, he said, someone who even if they don’t have answers understands the stakes and the people holding them.

“I’m counting on this chief to come in and we’ll figure it out together,” said Chan.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049@chabriaa