OAKLAND -- As the city resumes its hunt for a permanent police chief, there is a deepening divide over whether Mayor Jean Quan should simply hand the job to interim Chief Sean Whent -- at least until the department completes a decade-old court-mandated reform program and is released from federal oversight.

Although Whent, 39, lacks support from many rank-and-file officers, he is well-regarded by Robert Warshaw, the department's court-appointed monitor since 2010. Last week, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson granted Warshaw sweeping power over Oakland's police force in an effort to make it finally satisfy reforms ordered in the wake of the 1999 Riders police brutality scandal.

Interim Oakland police Chief Sean Whent talks about his plans for the department in his office at the Oakland Police Department in Oakland on May 14, 2013.
Interim Oakland police Chief Sean Whent talks about his plans for the department in his office at the Oakland Police Department in Oakland on May 14, 2013.

Warshaw, a former police chief in Rochester, N.Y., now has authority to spend city money, demote top commanders and petition Henderson to fire the chief. Although Warshaw can't veto the appointment of a new chief, he is expected to be consulted if the city opts to replace Whent.

Given Warshaw's frosty relations with Whent's predecessors, both of whom failed to make substantial progress on reforms, several council members are concerned that bringing in a new chief this year would set back the reform drive that is costing the city more than $1 million a year.

"If I was the mayor, I wouldn't replace Whent," Councilman Larry Reid said. "He has a good working relationship with the monitor who clearly has the respect of the judge. That alone ought to tell the mayor to let Whent stay and get through the (reforms) and then decide if there is a need for a new chief."

Quan's spokesman Sean Maher said that¿ any proposed candidate for chief "would be someone she is confident will complete the reforms."

Oakland was supposed to name a permanent chief in March, but the search stagnated two months ago when the city's recruiter, Bob Murray and Associates, withdrew claiming that the mayor's office had interfered in the process. The mayor and her staffers denied the accusations. Murray received about $20,000 for his work, officials said.

The city is negotiating a contract with the International Association of Chiefs of Police to take over the search which now is slated to produce a permanent chief in May. Several applicants already recruited by Murray, including Whent, will remain in consideration while the chiefs association searches for additional candidates, sources said.

The search for a chief has major ramifications for both the mayor's political future and public safety in the city. An accomplished chief arriving in Oakland with a clean slate could help Quan's re-election bid this November. It also might boost police morale and make voters more open to renewing a soon-to-expire $20 million a year public safety tax that funds 63 police officer jobs.

But a new chief would have to win the confidence of Warshaw and get up to speed on the reforms aimed at helping the department better police itself. Also, should Quan lose her re-election bid, the chief could wind up without crucial political support.

Considering that Oakland already has an understaffed police force and the state's highest violent crime rate, police experts question whether the city can attract top candidates.

"The best argument for an inside appointment is the less than stellar opportunity that a police chief of Oakland might represent to the 10 best young police administrators in the country," said Franklin Zimring, a criminologist and law professor at UC Berkeley. "I certainly wouldn't put it in first place."

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan attends a news conference at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater.
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan attends a news conference at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater. (Laura A. Oda/Sfaff file)

Council members interviewed have been almost evenly divided on whether the timing is right to look for a new chief. Although the Quan Administration selects the chief, the council's backing is important because any outside candidate would likely want the security of a multiyear contract, which requires council approval.

Councilman Dan Kalb said he supports Quan renewing the chief search. "The only logical question that one could ask is does the reality of us being under federal oversight mean that some really qualified people won't apply," he said. "I don't know if that is a factor or not, but the recruiting group should be able to answer that."

Councilman Noel Gallo, also supported continuing the search saying, "I think you'd have better trust from the public, and I think there would be more of a loyalty from our officers at the street level."

Councilwoman Pat Kernighan countered that she doesn't see "the merit of removing Whent when he is doing a good job on the reforms and he seems to have a good relationship with the monitor."

Several officials said Whent could benefit from a completed nationwide chief search because it would give him more legitimacy to have beaten out other candidates than to just have the job handed to him.

Whent, who was promoted to chief in a department shake-up last May, declined to comment for this story. He has been more popular with police critics than police officers stemming from his work in the department's Internal Affairs Division, which investigates officer misconduct.

In a department survey released this month, nearly two-thirds of officers said commanders didn't treat them fairly and several officers wrote that they feared receiving unfairly harsh punishments for making mistakes.

Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435