We remain open and steadfast in our commitment to helping our clients during these difficult days.

Proven Approach With Results Forged Through Experience

Image of attorney Mark L. Deniz

About the San Diego Police Chief in year 1 review

| Mar 9, 2015 | Firm News |

The one clear point was there had to be change when the new mayor came in.  There was no doubt he was looking for someone to come in with him to address the issues.

I do applaud the utilization of body cameras.  I believe this will help everybody all around.  I do take issue with police retention.  Most of these officers get paid well.  There is no doubt San Diego is an expensive place to live. The taxpayers understand and pay more to officers.  These officers all have great retirement.  With benefits, they make more than a lot of professionals here in San Diego county.  I crossed examined an officer in a case you made $86,000 a year.  He was seasonsed.  He was a good cop.  But, $86,000 plus benefits is more than most of the prosecutors who handle his cases.  How much more do you pay.  Sure…it is more affordable in Texas or some inland suburb.  However, this is San Diego and people do pay to work and play here.  I hope the chief continues working on making the San Diego police the best dept it can be.


Even in good times, the job of a big city police chief is daunting.


But consider, when Shelley Zimmerman was sworn in as San Diego’s 34th police chief on March 4, 2014, she inherited:

  • a string of officer misconduct cases and lawsuits
  • lack of public confidence
  • low morale among officers
  • officer recruitment and retention problems

She expressed confidence in her ability to fix was what being called a “damaged brand.”

The department’s leadership had been praised for keeping crime at low levels year after year, despite a steady exodus of experienced officers finding better pay at other agencies.

Zimmerman was lauded for her energetic and open style of management. She attends endless streams of community meetings and enjoys cycling, swimming or other athletic events that support charities. She stays steadfastly on message, to the point of predictable pet phrases, when touting her two passions: The San Diego Police Department and her alma mater Ohio State University Buckeyes.

“She’s very much a can-do person. She works hard and is passionate about what she does,” City Council President Sherri Lightner said.

“She walks the talk,” Sheriff Bill Gore said. “She’s a tireless advocate for the San Diego Police Department.”

However, the department she took over was criticized in lawsuits and community meetings for apparent poor supervision of officers, with allegations of a “code of silence” culture that encouraged officers to cover for each other rather than expose bad behavior.

The federal Department of Justice stepped in – at the request of the previous chief, William Lansdowne – to commission an audit of the department’s training, discipline and recruitment practices. Zimmerman has said she expects to release it to the public this month.


In a recent interview, looking back at her year as chief, Zimmerman stressed zero-tolerance for officers who “dishonor the badge” with misconduct and the need for dialogue with members of different communities.

“I said in my remarks when I was sworn in that the culture of excellence starts with me as chief of police all the way through our newest recruits and civilian staff,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman, then 54, had joined the department 32 years earlier, moving up the ladder to assistant chief in 2009 and working with the gang commission, police labor and human relations, and the chief’s community advisory boards.

Lansdowne, chief since 2003, announced on Feb. 25, 2014 that he would retire from the beleaguered department. He acknowledged a lack of public support after three years of prominent cases of officer misconduct ranging from drunken driving to groping female prisoners to the alleged rape of a prostitute.

“Morale had seriously dropped to levels I’d never seen it before,” said Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association. “People were losing faith in his ability to lead this organization through the tumultuous time we were having here.”

The day after Lansdowne’s announcement, mayor-elect Kevin Faulconer declared Zimmerman his choice for a reform chief. The City Council approved her appointment the next week.

“I think she has done a remarkable job her first year,” Faulconer said recently. “When she first came on, the department was going through a very tough time. I knew she would work quickly, set the tone and set clear standards of what would not be tolerated.”

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, policy director for the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, said she hadn’t supported the mayor’s choice of a department insider “rather than someone from the outside who might be seen as a reformer.”

“The ALCU was very critical of the process,” she said. “Chief Zimmerman was hand-picked by a mayor who wasn’t even in office yet.”

A priority for the chief, officials and community leaders agreed, was to restore the public’s trust in the police agency.

Toward that end, the new chief quickly advanced Lansdowne’s initiative to outfit patrol officers with body cameras. Videotape of officer contacts with the public is seen as a way to ensure that people on both sides of the camera behave or be held accountable.

“Community trust is a precious but perishable commodity that must be nurtured and enhanced at every opportunity,” Zimmerman said.

About 600 officers have cameras so far. The chief hopes this year’s budget will cover body-worn devices for the remaining 300-400 patrol officers.

“I’m hearing from my officers, ‘Chief, there’s been zero instances that I wished I didn’t have camera, and so many times I was glad I did,'” Zimmerman said.

She defends her policies to not release camera video to the public and for officers to record only enforcement contacts, not their entire day. The chief said she is concerned about privacy and considers video evidence to be presented in court, not in the media.

Among other measures Zimmerman has taken in her first year as chief:

  • reinstituted the Professional Standards Unit that had been disbanded in budget cuts and merged into the Internal Affairs Unit. The unit investigates officer misconduct.
  • bolstered staffing in the unit that conducts background checks on potential recruits.
  • took an active role in negotiating pay incentives for recruits, which were approved this year by the City Council and the police union.
  • ordered less “curb-sitting,” where vehicle occupants are ordered to sit on a curb while police search their car. Minority community leaders view it as demeaning when used as a common practice.
  • expanded social media community outreach with Facebook postings and tweets.

Zimmerman said she was thrilled to have 48 recruits start the police academy two weeks ago, the largest class since 2008, but she noted, “it doesn’t solve our problem today.” The current number of 1,868 sworn officers this week falls below budgeted staffing for 2,013.

“Recruitment and retention are still an issue,” said Marvel, the police union leader. “I think it will be for 10 years.”

He said there has been a definite drop in police misconduct cases under the new chief’s policies and the use of body-worn cameras. Notable exceptions were the married officers arrested last year on charges of selling prescription drugs.

Zimmerman repeats often, but always with the same ardor, her vision of “one city coming together, to share ideas, share information, with the goal of making San Diego the safest large city in the United States.”

But some activists are reserving judgment on the chief until they see whether she fulfills promises to end racial profiling in traffic stops and conduct meaningful internal investigations.

Zimmerman recently released data showing that black motorists are pulled over in traffic stops in numbers significantly greater than their population. The disparity was smaller for Hispanic drivers, while whites and Asians were stopped at lower rates. The numbers were about the same for blacks and Hispanics in a report released last May, and when the data were collected 10 years earlier.

Zimmerman said no clear conclusions could be drawn from the statistics because there was no comparison to the racial makeup of all San Diego drivers, who include tourists and border-crossers.

“The chief is avoiding looking at the legitimate question this data raises,” said the ALCU’s Dooley-Sammuli.

Andre Branch, president of the San Diego chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he found the racial profiling data “alarming”.

“I was surprised that she did not see the clear evidence of racial profiling, or at least she didn’t want to admit it,” said Branch. He also said he is concerned about the lack of African-Americans in the upper police ranks and the current recruit academy class.

Adriana Jasso, program coordinator at the local American Friends Service Committee, an immigration-rights advocacy group, said immigrants remain fearful that officers investigating a crime may ask their legal status. But she said Zimmerman has kept lines of communication open with her group to address the issue.

If the chief has yet to prove herself with some in the community, she has support from the police union. Marvel said the association backs nearly everything she has done, including swiftly making numerous promotions among command staff, including two assistant chiefs, to replace retirees.

But her time is short. Zimmerman, who enrolled in an early retirement program in 2013, will be forced to leave her job in 2018.

“She has 1,000 days to turn things around,” Marvel said, rounding off the number of days in Zimmerman’s expected 4-year term as chief.

The full article can be found here.

FindLaw Network
Share This