The good cop: Daniel Hahn’s hard road home

Daniel Hahn and his mother at his Sacramento swearing in ceremony. Courtesy of SPD

On a March night in 1992, two Sacramento police officers stood in front of an apartment at 19th and G, guarding the body of a low-level drug dealer who lay murdered inside.

Waiting, the patrolmen noticed another squad car roll into the nexus of old houses and leaning trees. Daniel Hahn, who’d been on the force for three years, climbed out and walked past them to the victim. The officers seemed put off. Why the hell was this young cop tromping through their crime scene? “Have you ID’d him yet?” Hahn asked. The others said they hadn’t. “His name is Chris Castle,” Hahn said, “he was born May 10, 1970.” The officers looked shocked. Hahn just said, “He’s my brother.”

The patrolmen stood frozen, not knowing what to say. Hahn silently dropped back into his patrol car and drove off into the night.

Twenty-five years later, Hahn has been named chief of the agency that investigated that mostly forgotten homicide. To many observers, the hire makes perfect sense. During the 23 years that he served on the force, where he rose to become a high-profile captain, Hahn earned a reputation as a fair-minded reformer, both in the neighborhoods where he worked and among the community leaders he served.

Now, Hahn’s returning to the streets that bred him and the cop shop that brought him up. He’s also walking into a City Hall saga of communal pain laid bare—a political pressure cooker where neighborhoods are demanding police reform and officers are quitting left and right.

Daniel Hahn has been here before. Tapped in 2011 to restore faith in a Roseville Police Department mired in accusations of wrongful death and discrimination, Hahn pried apart Roseville’s stat-driven, good-ol’-boys network of commanders and replaced them with a 21st-century law enforcement apparatus, all while making inroads with the area’s most marginalized communities.

As a reporter with the Roseville Press Tribune, I covered Hahn’s department for four-plus years, witnessing police officers, civic leaders and citizens groups largely rally behind him.

While many insiders believe Hahn’s the right chief for this moment, others worry he’s a man stepping into a maelstrom where there can be no winners, only symbols of blame.

Between conjecture and mounting expectations, Hahn knows one thing: His worst moment wearing the badge is already behind him. It was the night he drove to a shadowy phone box on K Street to tell his mother, on her birthday, that one of her sons was never coming home.

“I’d only heard my mom cry three or four times in my entire life,” Hahn recalls. He was listening to her tears through the receiver of the same phone box where, only two weeks before, he’d warned her that Chris was either going to wind up in jail—or dead.

Hahn says he learned to follow his instincts the hard way. And, no matter how he ends up being remembered in Sacramento, he says he’ll never ignore his instincts again.

A death in the family

Photograph by Fey Marin

When Hahn was 10 years old, he saw a man get murdered. He and his brother had been looking through the front window of their home in Oak Park when it happened. As the killers sped away, Hahn decided to venture out.

“I remember seeing him laying right there on the sidewalk,” the chief says, “and the blood trail from where he crawled into the liquor store and then crawled back out.”

Hahn doesn’t associate the moment with fear. In a neighborhood where sirens and gunshots were part of the evening’s soundtrack, the slaying was just an odd beat to the everyday rhythms of the corners. But that changed months later. While his mother, Mary Jean, was across the street visiting some friends, Hahn recalls, there was a sudden knock at the door. Opening it, he was staring at two investigators in suits with badges. They wanted to talk about the killing he’d witnessed. The fourth-grader happily stepped onto the porch to chat.

Later, when Mary Jean found out he’d been speaking with strangers about the murder, alone, she came unglued.

“She said, ’You don’t know who they are: they could have been the suspects—this could be gang-related,’” Hahn remembers. “I realized how scared she was.”

By 1989, Hahn was the one knocking on doors with a badge. When he first went to work for the Sacramento Police Department, it was an agency viewed with considerable distrust by many he’d grown up with. Hahn, who himself was arrested for tussling with a Sacramento cop when he was 16, now was wearing the same uniform as that officer.

Hahn started on the downtown beat. Chris Castle was one of its countless drug dealers. Hahn doesn’t think Chris, on the streets, ever denied that his brother, who was adopted into his family as an infant, was a cop. If Castle saw Hahn on patrol he’d often walk over to chat with him. And Hahn knew Castle was addicted. He knew he was selling. He knew there was at least a chance Castle was breaking into cars and houses. Yet Hahn admits the reality of his brother’s freefall didn’t sink in until one bizarre night on the job.

Hahn was parked at the corner of 21st and K when Castle climbed in the back. In the middle of a conversation, Castle suddenly pulled out a gun. Hahn flipped. Witnessing his brother flashing a weapon inside a marked police cruiser forced him to realize how far-gone he was. Hahn threw him out and walked over to the call box to tell their mother Chris was heading for an early grave.

“In hindsight, that was the cop in me telling my mom,” he says. “The real me was kind of in denial.”

But Castle was in trouble, and Hahn will never know how much his status as an officer played into it.

According to Hahn, Castle’s drug-dealing partner was a man named Skip. He had a long rap sheet that included stabbing a roommate numerous times in the chest. Around the same week that Hahn yelled at Castle to get out of the car, he tried to question Skip about an alleged assault on a prostitute. Hahn says Skip got aggressive and they ended up in a confrontation.

“I think that was the first time it was real for Skip that Chris’s brother was a cop,” Hahn says.

Days later, Hahn remembers, Skip was arrested by another Sacramento officer on drug charges. Skip began to suspect Castle was a police informant.

“He thought Chris was snitching, which he wasn’t,” Hahn recalls. “Chris never told me anything about other people dealing drugs. Then the call comes out a couple weeks later: Someone named Chris is down on his floor in his apartment and they don’t know if it’s OK or not, but there’s blood.”

Although the exact details are fuzzy 25 years later, Skip was reportedly later convicted of Castle’s murder.

“I thought about how this had happened on my beat, in my area of town, and how come I couldn’t stop it?” Hahn says.

For the next 18 years, Hahn set about following his instincts and doing police work the way he thought it should be done. He learned ways to get to know people in the neighborhoods. He did his best to motivate officers during hard times. When he was a public information officer, he even tried to learn what it was like to be a reporter—and how disseminating accurate information could help the police solve cases. By the time he was called to Roseville, Hahn had begun to develop a pretty coherent set of ideas about community policing.

A change agent

Photograph by Amber Kipp

“Shots fired! Shots fired! Officers down! Multiple men down! We’ve got an operator shot in the face!”

Hahn had been chief of the Roseville Police Department for two years when he heard that call over the radio. He remembers standing in place, unable to move.

“No one knows what it’s like to be a chief until they’re a chief,” says Ray Kerridge, the former city manager in both Sacramento and Roseville. “There are some things you just can’t be prepared for.”

While he was in Sacramento, it was Kerridge who first took notice of a police captain with a reputation for connecting with people in challenged neighborhoods. When he became the top administrator in Roseville in 2010, Kerridge walked into a city facing multiple lawsuits tied to its police department. The agency had made national headlines after an inmate was shot with a stun gun in the jail and dropped dead. Then, three Roseville police officers filed suit against their commanders for alleged harassment over their sexuality. There was also backlash from residents over the inordinate number of traffic citations being issued.

“It was pretty obvious the police department needed a change in direction,” Kerridge recalls. He placed the call, and Hahn agreed to take the job in 2011.

For months, Kerridge watched the first-time chief try to change his department’s management through conversations. The problem was, as Kerridge tells it, that didn’t work with some of Roseville’s captains and lieutenants. Kerridge says Hahn finally realized he needed to draw a hard line and make changes to the police command structure.

Hahn admits that change in Roseville did not come easy.

“When you’re trying to build trust, and you have people who are cutting against that—people who don’t care what the community thinks—that filters down to the line-level staff,” he says. “It just tears everything apart. I had to sit across from those people and tell them what I was getting ready to do. That was tough, but I also felt that I should be the one to tell them.”

Settling in, Hahn learned that Roseville had a large Spanish-speaking community that had almost no dialogue or interaction with his department. Many Roseville-area Latinos were afraid to report crimes against them or their neighbors. Hahn began having bilingual police employees accompany him to church events in their neighborhoods. He hosted police-sponsored barbecues and sports gatherings for their kids. He supported one of Roseville’s Spanish-speaking officers, hosting parent forums and making appearances on Univision. One of Hahn’s biggest goals was to eventually host a large gathering for Roseville’s Spanish-speakers inside the police department itself.

“For people who don’t have trust, we need to get them inside the building,” Hahn stresses. “It shouldn’t be this mystery when you drive down the street.”

Even Hahn’s most stalwart supporters in the Latino community told him that would never happen.

But on a night in 2015, it did. Nearly 400 people attended a forum conducted in Spanish inside the police department, and then took tours, with Spanish-speaking officers and administrators, of the facility.

Hahn had stood outside as they were arriving—a chief of police personally welcoming people and even helping park their cars. Hahn still smiles when he thinks about that event.

It’s a far cry from his memories of the day a Sureño gang member named Sammy Duran shot at two of his Roseville officers, took a young family hostage at gunpoint and then emptied a cartridge into the face of one of his SWAT members. The chaotic firefight happened in the Theiles Manor neighborhood, where many Latino families lived. The day after the shooting signs had shown up around its streets thanking the Roseville Police Department.

“The people who put those signs up had to be worried about what might happen,” Hahn reflects. “So, it meant a lot.”

Black and blue

On June 3, an issue of The Sacramento Bee rolled off the presses with the headline, “Sacramento’s first black police chief aims to heal embattled department.”

The news came after a year of community leaders and activists flooding Sacramento City Hall with concerns—and outrage—directed at some police officers. Controversial shootings, a beating caught on video, and a 2015 audit showing that 75 percent of the Sacramento Police Department is white all drove the emotions.

The reaction to The Bee article was almost universally positive, with one exception. Tanya Faison, the founder of Black Lives Matter Sacramento, posted on Facebook about The Bee’s headline: “They think this will fix it. They think they are appeasing Black folks with this move.”

But other organizations who have been confronting the city appear ready to work with the incoming chief.

Richard Owen, co-chair of the Law Enforcement Accountability Director, told SN&R that his group firmly supports the decision to hire Hahn.

“We know him well and how respected he was when he worked in Sacramento,” Owen says. “He definitely has a refreshing approach. But he has a very delicate balancing act now. There’s a lot of suspicion of the police from those who want reform; but, on the other hand, he also needs to manage the rank-and-file officers and have their support. It’s not going to be easy.”

Sacramento Area Congregations Together, a coalition of churches pushing for police transparency sent a similar message of hope. SacACT’s Danielle Williams said her organization is cautiously optimistic. But, for Williams personally, she’s not focusing on the historic nature of the appointment.

“I don’t care if the new police chief is black. What I care about is accountability,” Williams said. “We must remain vigilant. We cannot say, ’Oh, we have a black police chief. Let’s call it a day.’”

Having worked alongside Hahn for years, Kerridge says he has no doubts about the chief’s ability to affect change. But even Kerridge acknowledges Hahn’s time in Roseville—overseeing approximately 130 police officers and 60 civilian employees—wasn’t without rough patches.

In 2014, Hahn was caught in the middle of a nasty battle between Roseville’s police union and city management, one that left some officers feeling Hahn hadn’t fought for them. There was a wrongful termination lawsuit, and a suit from a business owner named Len Travis claimed a handful of Roseville officers constantly harassed him. The department was also hit with a wrongful death suit following a domestic violence call that went bad. Hahn can’t discuss the suits, but emphasizes that he learned a lot from the dark days of the union battle, and is proud of the overall accomplishments of the Roseville Police Department.

Kerridge says Hahn should be proud. “I saw him evolve, mature and even change his basic approach,” Kerridge recalls. “I’ll say this to Sacramento police officers, ’Anyone who’s not on board with community policing is going to be in for a rude awakening when Chief Hahn gets there.’”

For his part, Hahn says he understands why Sacramento police officers feel demoralized right now. He’s willing to testify about all of the bridge-building they’ve been trying to do, which he says rarely gets reported. But Hahn also says there’s a historic legacy of mistrust—an American legacy—that the department has to overcome. And he needs everyone on board to do that.

“I’ve learned people don’t give up power easily,” Hahn says. “I’m OK with people disagreeing with me, but when you do things on purpose that bring down the department, or bring down the community, or cut against the trust we’re trying to build, I have zero tolerance for that—zero.”

Our content is free, but not free to produce

If you value our local news, arts and entertainment coverage, become an SN&R supporter with a one-time or recurring donation. Help us keep our reporters at work, bringing you the stories that need to be told.


Stay Updated

For the latest local news, arts and entertainment, sign up for our newsletter.
We'll tell you the story behind the story.

Be the first to comment on "The good cop: Daniel Hahn’s hard road home"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.