SAN LEANDRO -- Even after more than 25 years in law enforcement, Sandra Spagnoli said she still is looking for a challenge.

It is that search that will bring her to the East Bay next month -- to serve as San Leandro's first female police chief.

"I was looking for a city that would offer something different, a larger city," said Spagnoli, currently Benicia's police chief. "There's uniqueness to San Leandro. I'm very excited to get to serve as the police chief there."

Spagnoli has been Benicia's top cop for the past four years. She also served with the San Carlos Police Department for 16 years, the last eight as a commander.

She will draw on that experience to help her with the challenges she is likely to face in San Leandro, including a department that was scarred in recent years by seven sexual harassment lawsuits. Six of those cases were settled for a total of $675,000, and one the city won.

However, Spagnoli said she cannot concern herself too much with what has gone on before her.

"I believe in looking forward, not looking back," she said. "I plan on building on what we have here."

City Manager Stephen Hollister said the department already has made significant strides in changing the department's culture in that area under outgoing police Chief Ian Willis, and the hiring of Spagnoli had nothing to do with gender.

"Sandra and her background proved to be the best fit for San Leandro," Hollister said. "She's a very impressive leader and will be a great asset to our department."

Hollister, who as city manager is in charge of all department head hires, said two panels were formed to help choose a new police chief -- one with members of the community, and one made of people with city government and police experience. A professional recruiter also was used.

"We had a very talented group of police chief candidates, and Sandra impressed both the community and professional panels," Hollister said. "I am excited to have her as a member of the San Leandro team, and I am confident she will maintain and enhance the San Leandro Police Department's excellent service and reputation, just as retiring Chief Ian Willis has done."

Spagnoli will go from a city of about 30,000 residents and 36 officers to San Leandro with approximately 75,000 people and 90 officers.

She said the first thing she plans to do when she arrives next month is to sit down with community members, city officials, her fellow officers and all other stakeholders to get a feel for what needs to be done and what may be the pressing issues From there she plans on prioritizing those objectives.

"I'm very interested to hear what everyone has to say and where it is we should be going as a department," Spagnoli said.

Some of Spagnoli's accomplishments during her time in Benicia include starting their Citizen Police Academy, an eight-week course to give the public an opportunity to see firsthand how the department operates.

She also set up Benicia's SWAT team collaboration with Vallejo, before Vallejo disbanded its team.

Spagnoli is expected to take over as San Leandro chief Jan. 10.