Mike Harden's goals were pretty simple in 1984, the year he joined the Modesto Police Department as an officer.
"I wanted to put myself through the (police) academy and drive a police car," he said.
Harden is responsible for much more than one patrol car these days. He will be stepping in to lead 254 officers as the acting chief of the department while the city searches for Roy Wasden's successor.
Harden, 46, likely will be a candidate for the job opened by Wasden's decision to become Turlock's city manager. Wasden expects to begin in Turlock by July 1, but his departure date from Modesto isn't set.
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"This is an opportunity that I cherish, and I'm going to do the best job I can," Harden said. "I love working in the department and living in the city."
He practically grew up in the Modesto Police Department.
His roots in his hometown law enforcement agency stretch back 30 years to when he participated in a Police Explorers program as a student at Davis High School.
He rose through the ranks, leading a homicide unit in the late 1990s as a sergeant and becoming assistant chief under Wasden in 2003.
He will be taking the reins of the department as the city cuts millions of dollars in spending, including cuts to law enforcement.
That means Harden will guide a high-profile department while it looks to suppress gangs, graffiti and car thefts with fewer officers than it had two years ago.
It also means Harden will be the top manager of an organization stressed by ongoing labor negotiations. The city is seeking more cuts from police unions that made concessions in supporting work furloughs.
City Council members said they have faith in him.
"I like working with Chief Harden," said Councilman Brad Hawn, who helped write a new entertainment ordinance with Harden a year ago. "He's a very can-do, aggressive manager from what I can see. He thinks like a cop, but he also understands how other people think."
City Manager Greg Nyhoff said Modesto would launch its search for a police chief within three to six months. Modesto could lean toward the end of the time frame to save money from Wasden's salary.
Nyhoff and council members said they don't want to skip the search, although they welcome applications from internal candidates.
"We need the best person for the job, and there may be a person we don't even know about," Hawn said. "Even if Chief Harden is the guy, and he may very well be, it would validate his position."
Harden would like to develop community partnerships to fight crime over the next few months knowing that he won't be able to hire more officers to patrol the streets. He praised Wasden for opening the door with many community groups over his nine-year term.
"I recognize that law enforcement alone can't cure all of society's ills," he said. "I absolutely recognize that the way out of gang violence is education or a job."
Harden lives in Modesto with his wife, Lori, and 17-year-old daughter. His 19-year-old son is in his second year at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
Harden has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Phoenix and an associate degree from Modesto Junior College.
His base salary in 2008 was $125,250. He is expected to receive a boost in pay for his time as acting police chief, but that salary has not been determined.
Harden said his time in leadership positions at the department taught him the best solutions would come from the officers around him.
"When I was a young officer, a young sergeant, I had all the answers," he said. "I quickly learned I don't have all the answers."
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2366.