What Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn gets wrong on the fight for Black liberation

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn's tenure has been defined by his police force's often violent responses to demonstrations.

Last fall Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn wrote an opinion piece for Inside Sacramento. In it, he expressed frustration with his predicament: the duality of being both a Black man and a member of law enforcement.

Hahn, with whom I had a positive professional relationship for several years in Roseville and Sacramento (me as media and him as the first Black police chief in each city), responded to public criticism and calls for the city of Sacramento to defund its police department. While  eloquent and well written, the op-ed fell flat, striking me as both disappointing and predictable.

“Countless progressive chiefs across the country, many Black, are being removed,” he wrote. “They are collateral damage of the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Webster’s Dictionary defines collateral damage as “injury inflicted on something other than an intended target.”

When Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists call for reform or abolition of police departments, they do not state specific exemptions for Black chiefs.

“They weren’t doing what they’re supposed to anyway,” said Sacramento-based community activist Berry Accius, who has been a central figure in the region’s fights for Black liberation. “We have Black politicians and Black power figures in powerful seats and it still goes awry. So, what do you think people are gonna end up doing? If you’re a Black face in power (you) shouldn’t be standing by the wickedness of the system.

Berry Accius (gray sweatshirt) and Black Lives Matter demonstrators look on as Sacramento Police Department officers hold a line for a group of anti-BLM demonstrators at a protest following the police killing of Stephon Clark in 2018.

“I’ve known Chief Hann for a while, before the Roseville days,” Accius added. “We’ve been on panels together, but I feel no pity for him and no obligation to him.”

In Hahn’s essay, he claims that police chiefs and officers are being held to account for “a racist reality they didn’t create.” Then, two and a half paragraphs later, he concedes that “police are biased about race.” 

“If anything, the BLM target is too narrow,” he writes, noting that racism is pervasive in nearly every American institution.  

This strikes me as an attempt to deflect and an act of self preservation.

Beyond law enforcement and criminal justice reform, BLM activists and protesters have spent the better part of a decade advocating for change in local governments, public education and immigration law, among other things. BLM protestors have declared solidarity with other activist groups and held members of the movement accountable for discrimination against LGBTQ Black people and division within the Black community along national and ethnic lines, resulting in the newly popular #AllBlackLivesMatter hashtag on social media during 2020 Pride celebrations. The movement has objectives, not “targets.” These objectives have been anything but narrow.

Chief Hahn, you do not seem to be listening.

In 2014, Hahn was personally helpful to me when I encountered an overzealous community service officer. He spoke with the officer after she racially profiled me at a crime scene. The next time I saw this officer, she was contrite, respectful, gave me all the information I needed for my story and did not prevent me from doing my job. 

In theory, this is a microcosm of what “reform” looks like: The appointment of officials who are able to identify and counter racist behavior in their departments.

Activists recognize that macro-level reform is not a realistic goal. Hahn seems to agree.

“Police are in an untenable position,” he writes.“Police cannot keep the peace and improve quality of life without help.”

This is precisely the problem police abolitionists ask local governments to address by redistributing the excessive amounts of capital given to law enforcement so they can fund departments and services that help, not just police, their communities.

Hahn notes that mental health care systems, drug rehabilitation programs and affordable housing are not sufficiently funded, leading to unnecessary, problematic encounters between police and citizens in need of these services.

In 2016, one of these citizens–a Black male by the name of Joseph Mann–was shot and killed by two members of the Sacramento Police Department.

Mann had previously worked as a counselor for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Sadly, he struggled with his own mental health and drug addiction to the point of being homeless in 2016.

Before shooting Mann, officers Randy Lozoya and John Tennis tried to hit him with their police cruiser. 

“Fuck this guy,” and “I’m going to hit him” can be heard on dashcam footage from the vehicle. Lozoya and Tennis were not charged for Mann’s death.

It’s these exact cases that BLM activists and police abolitionists seek to reduce. A defunded Sacramento Police Department leaves sufficient resources to fund services that could have given Mann a chance to live a healthy life. Instead, it ended with two violent officers and a round of bullets.

“Should we defund the police? No police chief would suggest such a thing,” Hahn writes.

This language is a tacit acknowledgement that police serve the interests of their departments, with no consideration for the citizens they take an oath to protect and serve.

“Defunding disproportionately impacts the communities we must uplift,” he continues.

Chief Hahn, your department and police departments all over this country disproportionately kill, imprison, harass and otherwise interfere with the lives of people in these communities. You acknowledge in your own piece that they have done so since their inception.

When activists take issue with this reality and demand accountability, they are met with violence.

“It looked like I was walking into a war zone,” Elk Grove native Daniel Houze said to me of the first protest he attended in June 2020 following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. “I knew my friends were deeper in the crowd so I kept walking. That’s when the tear gas hit. I couldn’t stop crying and my throat and eyes burned.”

Now a resident of San Diego, Houze marched with friends in Southern California, including me. On several occasions last summer, I watched police escalate peaceful demonstrations with violence, attacking crowds with rubber bullets, flash grenades and tear gas. 

Daniel Houze and Jorden P. Hales participate in a Black Lives Matter march in San Diego in the weeks following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Each time I was part of a demonstration last June, police forcibly broke up peaceful crowds without cause. 

Houze’s experience was similar. 

“Apparently the cops were just over people being in the area where they were protesting,” He said. “So, they tear-gassed everyone and shot rubber bullets into the crowd. Everyone was down on their knees, peacefully protesting.”

A defunded San Diego Police Department leaves these officers with blow horns and non-violent crowd control tactics instead of the tear gas and rubber bullets used against my friends and me.

When 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was arrested last August after allegedly killing two BLM protesters in Kenosha, WI, I told a friend that I wasn’t bothered by him being taken into custody without harm. 

“My problem is I know the same care wouldn’t be taken with my life,” I said.

And it wouldn’t. On March, 18, 2018, two Sacramento police officers fatally shot a man named Stephon Clark as he tried to enter his grandmother’s home. They’d received reports that someone was breaking into cars in the area. No weapons were found in Clark’s possession. 

I remember that night well. It was my 28th birthday. As Clark took eight bullets in his back, I celebrated having lived eight years longer than Sacramento police decided he should. The officers that killed Clark were not charged, and Chief Hahn didn’t fire them.

Accius also remembers Clark’s death. In the days that followed, he led a protest that stopped tens of thousands of people from entering a Sacramento Kings game. Demonstrators stood in front of arena entrances. The story was covered nationally and Accius met with Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive after the game was played.   

Hahn writes that some of his “eager young recruits” may have trouble empathizing with a young man like Clark (he didn’t mention Clark specifically) because they “may have never experienced a close relationship with a Black person.”

To this I ask, why are these recruits so eager?

Rittenhouse, the alleged Kenosha shooter, wanted to be a cop. He was just one birthday, a boot camp and some college credits from qualified immunity.

A 2006 bulletin report from the FBI warned law enforcement about the threat of white nationalists and neo-Nazis having infiltrated their departments. Why do police and sheriff’s departments appeal to white nationalists, or to a teen like Rittenhouse? They clearly don’t see Black police chiefs and implicit bias training as an impediment to their agendas. 

And they shouldn’t. Police officers throughout the country have been seen transporting members of white nationalist groups to designated areas during counter protests and public demonstrations. A viral video fact-checked and authenticated by USA Today shows Rittenhouse being given water by local law enforcement. They thanked him for being present 15 minutes before his alleged attack.

Mann, Clark, brutalized protestors and countless others killed and harmed by police and sheriff’s deputies in America certainly did not create the racist realities we deal with today. I would almost go so far as to call these victims “collateral damage,” but that would imply that the officers and those who enable them don’t mean us harm. As both Hahn and myself have written, they’ve meant to for centuries.

“We can’t talk about law enforcement’s ancestry of slave patrols without recognizing that Black people were legally enslaved and not considered complete humans,” Hahn writes. “Newspapers advertised rewards for their capture.”

Speaking of newspapers, I empathize with Chief Hahn. As a member of the media, another American institution rotten with racism and anti-Blackness, I too find myself stressed and frustrated with the burden of being a Black man in a space that demonizes and humiliates my people. I am also angered by my limited power to change this reality. I too wish frustrated Black people who ask me to take different approaches could see and understand my professional experiences and the logic that drives my decisions.

I’ve been chastised, critiqued and scolded by activists and everyday Black people who see me as a participant in efforts to make our lives hard to live, but I have never comported myself to be a victim of their cause.

Chief Hahn’s contradictory opinion piece asks citizens and victims of police brutality to make compromises that should be made by city officials, state legislators and his peers. I hope his recent tone is not a troubling tipping point as frustration continues to mount. Without the exact types of activism Hahn seems to take issue with, he wouldn’t be allowed to hold the title of police chief today. 

“I’m hard-pressed to hear out this kind of talk from him,”  Accius said. “Because when he had the opportunity to do the right thing and challenge the system that he talks about, he didn’t do it.”


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Jorden P. Hales
Jorden P. Hales
Jorden P. Hales is a pan-African writer and broadcast news producer. Originally from Sacramento and now based in San Diego, he primarily covers local news and matters concerning the African diaspora. He also enjoys covering sports and popular culture on all mediums.