Sean Whent named permanent Oakland police chief

  • May 15, 2014

By Will Kane
Chronicle Staff Writer

Oakland's new police chief is a modest, low-key worker who relishes the challenge of having one of the most difficult jobs in the Bay Area.

On Wednesday, Mayor Jean Quan announced that Sean Whent, an 18-year department veteran who was serving as interim chief, had won the job as the force's permanent leader.

Whent, who competed against 27 candidates from across the country for the job, said he was pleased with the promotion.

"Oakland is a complex and colorful city full of possibilities, and the Oakland Police Department must play a key role in the success of the city," he said.

Whent, 39, is respected in the community and by city leaders as a no-nonsense commander who bluntly lays out the faults and successes of Oakland's Police Department. Whent is not, those close to him say, a showy chief eager for celebrity or a cowboy who wants to stop crime by strutting though the streets.

Instead, Whent lays low and works.

"One of the things I really like about him is you get a straight answer," said Fred Blackwell, the city administrator who, along with Quan, gave the police chief job to Whent. "You don't get a lot of flowery stuff or a lot of tap dancing. He provides the information you're looking for in a straightforward, cut-and-dry sort of way."

In his year as interim chief, Whent slashed violent crime and pushed the department to comply with a decade-old court order to reform, results that Quan and Blackwell said cinched the deal.

"In order to be effective in this job someone has to be committed to constitutional policing," Blackwell said. "They have to be committed to public safety. They have to be strategic. They have to put together a good team and they have to have integrity, and the chief rose to the top of a very competitive pool because he possesses all of those qualities."

Major crime declining

Shootings are down 35 percent while armed robberies have dropped 47 percent compared with this time last year, according to police statistics. Twenty-eight people have been slain this year, 18 percent fewer than at this time last year.

In late April the independent monitor assigned to oversee the Police Department's compliance with federal court reforms said that under Whent's leadership the department had achieved the highest level of compliance since 2003, when the department was placed under court scrutiny stemming from a police abuse case.

"We still have a lot more work to do," Quan said. "But I believe that Sean Whent is the person to lead us into the next phase."

Whent led the internal affairs department and his history there makes him unpopular with some rank-and-file officers. But he has support from Quan, members of the City Council and Robert Warshaw, the monitor appointed by a federal judge to oversee the reforms.

"For nearly one full year, interim Chief Sean Whent has competently served while the city's fragmentary attempts to select a permanent chief have consumed public resources and done little to nurture public confidence in the process," Warshaw wrote in his April update on Oakland's progress in making the reforms.

Whent, who lives in Brentwood with his wife and three daughters, took over as acting chief in May 2013 after then-Chief Howard Jordan abruptly resigned.

History on the force

Whent joined the department in 1994 as a cadet and then graduated from the police academy in 1996 and has worked in the patrol division, the criminal investigation division, the internal affairs division and the office of the inspector general.

As a child, Whent would visit his grandparents in Oakland and listen to his grandmother's police scanner. He enrolled at Cal State East Bay and toyed with being a business major, but was drawn to what he'd heard on the scanner.

"It was the only thing I consistently wanted to do over time," Whent said of being a police officer.

He was a little-known lieutenant when he was promoted to serve a 21-month stint as the acting commander of the internal affairs division.

In August, when Quan started the $80,000 search for a new chief, Bishop Bob Jackson was among those who wanted Whent to be replaced.

But over the last 10 months, Jackson - who leads a congregation of 6,000 in East Oakland and works closely with the Police Department - said he has seen Whent grow into a capable leader.

"We just didn't expect him to be as good a leader as he turned out to be. He blossomed into it, he really did," Jackson said. "We were all skeptical of him coming from (internal affairs). But he was ready to turn the corner and gain the respect of the men, and the morale has picked up. He seems to really be doing a great job."

Quan said she "absolutely" thought Whent had become a stronger candidate over time.

Jim Chanin, a civil rights attorney closely involved with the efforts to reform the department, said he came across Whent in 2008 while listening to recordings of internal affairs investigations.

"All of sudden I heard this guy who turned out to be Sean Whent, and he was asking really probing questions, and I went, 'Who was this?' " Chanin said. "Usually they ask really softball questions like, 'Were you afraid? Were you fearful for your life?' Usually it is like watching a softball game. This guy was asking really probing questions. He wanted to know the truth."

Maintains his integrity

And Whent has continued to maintain his integrity, Chanin said.

"Even if I disagree with him, I know he is telling the truth, and that really facilitates communication," Chanin said.

But others were more circumspect.

Barry Donelan, head of Oakland's police union, said of Whent's appointment: "I am glad this air of uncertainly is finished. Regardless of who is chief, the officers in this department will come to work every day as they have done and serve this community. There's no surprise, no excitement, no nothing. It is what it is."

Whent's annual compensation will be $251,113, excluding benefits and pension. Quan and Blackwell will ask the council to approve a four-year contract.

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