Oakland -- The city's newest interim police chief already has convinced many of the department's most entrenched critics that he's the right man for one of the toughest jobs in law enforcement. But some of his officers remain skeptical.

After one of the most turbulent weeks in Oakland police history, Sean Whent, 38, emerged at the helm of a department that has surrendered much of its autonomy to a federal judge and lost the faith of many residents who have endured two years of rising crime.

His ascension to interim chief came after former Chief Howard Jordan went on medical leave last Wednesday upon learning that the department's court-appointed federal overseer would soon seek his ouster. Less than 48 hours later, Jordan's initial replacement, Anthony Toribio, abandoned the chief's post and accepted a demotion, citing family reasons.

New interim Oakland police chief Sean Whent talks about his own history and his plans for the department in his office at the Oakland Police Department in
New interim Oakland police chief Sean Whent talks about his own history and his plans for the department in his office at the Oakland Police Department in Oakland, Calif. on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

Whent acknowledged that the palace intrigue surrounding his promotion could make officers question whether he will be merely a figurehead chief to the department's federal overseer, Thomas Frazier.

"I think that some people will have that perception, but I am the police chief," he said during a Tuesday interview in his office. "I'll be the one making the day-to-day decisions. I think they'll see that."

Recent Oakland chiefs have railed that the job doesn't come with the authority needed to match the daunting challenge of successfully patrolling the state's most violent city with a severely undermanned force. Whent has less power than any incoming chief in department history.

Frazier, a former Baltimore police commissioner, has authority to spend city funds, seek Whent's ouster and demote his command staff -- all in the name of finally making the city comply with court-mandated reforms stemming from the decade-old Riders police brutality scandal.

Whent met with Frazier shortly after Mayor Jean Quan offered him the chief's job on Thursday, and said Frazier made it clear that he was there to provide support. The two have emailed several times a week since a judge appointed Frazier in March, Whent said. They have been in contact every weekday since Whent became chief.

"He definitely wants to be kept abreast of what's going on, but I haven't got the sense that he wants to run the place," Whent said.

Whent grew up in Pleasanton, the son of two Oakland natives. He recalled listening to Oakland's police scanner as a young boy while he stayed at his grandmothers' house in the San Antonio district.

He graduated from Oakland's police academy in 1996 and spent most of his early years as a beat cop. In 2003, he won department's Medal of Valor for rescuing a woman from a burning Ford Mustang that had just crashed when the driver started spinning "doughnuts" during a late-night "sideshow."

But Whent's quick rise up the ranks up over the past decade occurred mostly during the nearly five years he spent in the department's Internal Affairs Division -- a key area of the reform effort that was designed to make officers more accountable and make sure the department was capable of policing itself.

Whent's tenure meting out punishments to officers accused of violating department policy won the respect of Frazier and the department's federal monitors, who have repeatedly criticized it for not holding officers accountable.

"The most important thing for us is when he said he was going to do something he did it," said John Burris, one of two attorneys who represented victims in the Riders scandal and has remained active in the reform drive.

But Whent's work also made him unpopular with many officers, who said that investigations were at times dishonest and that discipline was uneven, with some officers subjected arbitrarily to harsh punishments by officials looking to appease the monitors.

"I think he's a coward. He went and hid in the office as much as he could," said one former officer who asked not to be named because it could hinder future job opportunities. "I think you're going to see a mass exodus out of there. People are going to go where they appreciate hard work."

Former Lt. Lawrence Green, who retired from Oakland in 2010, said Whent wasn't popular, but he thought the new chief was put "between a rock and a hard place" during his tenure in internal affairs.

"I actually like Sean Whent. I think he could surprise people," Green said. "He needs to be visible and show people who he is, because I think he's a better person and a more capable person than people realize."

Whent said he was bound to make enemies in internal affairs -- a job he at one point unsuccessfully sought to leave -- but that he also had gone to bat for officers who he thought should be exonerated.

"The main point is that I'm fair," he said. "When they do the right thing, I'll defend them. When they do the wrong thing, I'll hold them accountable."

As for winning hearts and minds, Whent said that would come with results.

"The record is going to have to speak for itself," he said. "If I come in here and we get out from under court oversight, that's a huge win. And if ... we drive crime down and make the city safer, that's a huge win.

"That should be enough to get the support of the community; that should be enough to get the support of the department," he said.

For all the focus on satisfying the federal reforms, Whent said that crime was the top concern for most residents in a city that tallied 131 homicides last year and has the highest rate of robberies in the nation.

He will soon complete the restructuring of the force into five policing districts and begin assigning more investigators to each district in July when the department's 37-member recruiting class finishes field training.

Whent has been one of the department's sharpest critics. In a deposition, Frazier said that Whent told him that he had "little faith that internal affairs can get it right" and that investigators "do not want to be the individual who sustains a complaint" against a fellow officer.

Whent said that wasn't entirely true and that internal affairs had made strides since he had that conversation with Frazier more than a year ago when Frazier was a city consultant.

He blamed the department's struggles primarily on constant turnover and a constantly changing set of directives that prevented it from fully implementing initiatives.

Whent hasn't decided if he'll apply to become the permanent chief, but said he'll govern like one.

"I have to act like I'm here for the long haul, and while I'm here ... we are not changing course," he said. "The plan is laid out. We are fighting crime and we are going to advance compliance."

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435 or martz@bayareanewsgroup.com.

SEAN WHENT TIMELINE
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.