OAKLAND -- Acting police chief Sean Whent on Wednesday finally went from interim to permanent leader of an Oakland police department that is still searching for stability and an end to 11 years of federal oversight.
In a much anticipated move, Mayor Jean Quan named Whent Oakland's fifth police chief in the past decade -- and the third of her tenure. Whent is negotiating a four-year contract that will have to be approved by the City Council.
Quan praised Whent, 39, as a humble, no-nonsense leader, who as interim chief had pressed ahead with court-ordered reforms, brought down crime and improved the department's reputation with residents.
"You can see and feel the difference in the relationship between the community and its police department," she said during a news conference announcing Whent's appointment.
Whent, who is more popular among police critics than rank-and-file officers, was cheered repeatedly as he pledged to build a more progressive and collaborative department.
"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 told a crowd that included his wife and three daughters.
Running Oakland's police department is considered one of the toughest jobs in law enforcement. Whent not only has to manage an undermanned force patrolling California's most violent city, he must get the department to finally comply with a court-mandated reform drive stemming from the 1999 Riders police brutality scandal.
The reforms, aimed at ensuring that the department polices itself, have tripped up several of Whent's recent predecessors, but they pose a different set of challenges for the new chief.
After several years spent disciplining officers as the head of the Internal Affairs Division, Whent has the support and respect of Oakland's federal monitor, Robert Warshaw, who has clashed with previous chiefs and has sweeping power over the department.
But, as indicated in a recent anonymous officer survey, many department veterans say that Internal Affairs has handed out harsh and arbitrary punishment in order to please Warshaw -- and they remain leery of Whent.
"He's a very good on the nuts and bolts of compliance with the reforms," police union President Barry Donelan said. "He really knows that stuff. But he needs to be better at building trust with police officers."
Asked about the rank and file, Whent, who has spent his entire 18-year career in Oakland, said it wasn't realistic to expect unanimous support and praised officers for their hard work. "I absolutely support them," he said.
Although Whent still hasn't mended fences with many veteran officers, he appears to have built strong ties with community members.
"Everybody has found him to be a man of integrity," said Bishop Bob Jackson, who has worked closely with police as the leader of Acts Full Gospel Church. "When he says he's going to do something, he does it, and that is what we've been looking for."
Rashidah Grinage, a frequent police critic, who heads the community group PUEBLO, praised Whent for honestly addressing the department's shortcomings.
Whent became interim chief last May in a shake-up orchestrated by the department's federal overseers that saw then-chief Howard Jordan and then-Assistant Chief Anthony Toribio give up the top job over the course of 48 hours.
Whent was quickly criticized for his failure to prepare for violent protests that broke out after an acquittal in the killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.
One month after the protests, Quan announced a nationwide search for a permanent chief. But the search, which netted 48 applicants, stalled after the first headhunting firm withdrew.
In the meantime, crime dropped and Warshaw released a report showing that the department was closer than ever to completing the reforms.
"It's kind of ironic," Councilman Dan Kalb said. "But because of the inadvertent delays in the search, it gave Chief Whent the opportunity to show the job he can do."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.
1994: Whent joins the police force, while a student at then-Cal State Hayward.
1996: Whent graduates the police academy.
2003: Whent wins department's Medal of Valor for pulling woman from a burning car in East Oakland. That same year he is promoted to sergeant.
2005: Whent is transferred to work in internal affairs, saying in a 2011 deposition that he would have preferred to stay on the street and "arrest bad guys."
2006: Whent is promoted to lieutenant.
2009: Whent is put in command of internal affairs.
2010: Whent is promoted to captain.
2012: Whent is promoted to deputy chief, with authority over internal affairs.
2013: Whent is named interim police chief after Howard Jordan and Anthony Toribio both leave the post in the same week.
2014: Whent is named permanent chief.