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Police Chief speaks at La Jolla Woman’s Club

San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman
San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman
(Ashley Mackin)

Two shooter-related instances in one day didn’t stop San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman from her speaking engagement at La Jolla Woman’s Club Nov. 4, as part of its Women in Leadership series.

Earlier that day, there was an active shooter in Bankers Hill downtown and another armed and dangerous person in Pacific Beach. Nevertheless, Zimmerman spoke to the more than 50 attendees that night to share how she reached the ranks of San Diego’s first female police chief and her approach to establishing “a culture of excellence” on the force.

Lecture attendees listen to Chief Zimmerman’s story
Lecture attendees listen to Chief Zimmerman’s story
(Ashley Mackin)

Zimmerman said she grew up in Ohio, and as an avid football fan, traveled to Los Angeles for a football game in 1980. While on the West Coast, she decided to visit the San Diego Zoo and some beaches, and immediately decided “I had shoveled my last driveway,” she said.

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She moved to San Diego with the intent of going to law school, and after learning that the San Diego Police Department was hiring, thought it would be a way to earn money and get a first-hand lesson in the legal system. “When I entered the Academy, I fell in love with being a police officer,” Zimmerman said. “But I soon learned that the journey through life is rarely a straight line. There are going to be twists and turns, but you have to embrace those twists and turns because they could lead you to places you never imagined were possible.”

In her first decade on the job, Zimmerman patrolled Northern Division (which oversees La Jolla), had undercover assignments – including as a prostitute, which she jokes she was “really good at” – and served as the bodyguard to San Diego’s first female mayor, Maureen O’Connor.

Because she said the police department welcomed her “with open arms” and gave her “lots of opportunities,” Zimmerman was encouraged by one of her captains to take the Sergeant’s test. “I thought ‘why would I do that? I’m making our city safer,’ but I enjoyed the teaching aspect, so I took the test and did very well,” she said. “I loved getting to mentor, shape and lead a whole squad of officers.”

After some time as a Sergeant, the Lieutenant’s test was coming up, and Zimmerman was once again encouraged to apply. “I thought, ‘why would I do that? I have the best squad here,’ ” she said, but she was told the position would give her more influence over more people, so she applied and was accepted. “One of my first assignments was as a field lieutenant, and I was on duty from 5 at night until 5 in the morning. I loved it because I was the highest-ranking individual in the city,” Zimmerman said.

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When the same Captain who encouraged her from the beginning was promoted to Assistant Chief, he suggested she apply for a Captain’s job. “So what did I say … why would I do that?” But as history would have it, she applied and was made Captain.

While Captain, Zimmerman served in different divisions and had the opportunity to work with then-councilmember Kevin Faulconer. When Faulconer was elected mayor, he appointed her Chief of Police. “So if you see the mayor, thank him for me,” she said.

Upon her appointment as Chief, Zimmerman said the reputation of the police force wasn’t sparkling. “At that time, we had issues with misconduct ,” she acknowledged. “So I wanted to instill a culture of excellence with our officers. It starts with me, all the way down to our newest recruits.” To create that culture, she said her focus has been on using body cameras, practicing procedural justice, teaching emotional intelligence, encouraging better communication and confronting bias.

“I’m a huge proponent of body cameras and we are the largest city in the United States to have deployed 970 body cameras,” she said. The department just finished its first-year analysis of the three divisions that have body cameras. “Our complaints are down, our allegations are down, our levels of use-of-force are down, a lot of incidences have been de-escalated,” she said. However, assaults on officers are up, and the most common factors involved in these assaults are: mental health issues, substance use and proximity to an entertainment center. “We found if you have mental health issues or are under the influence, you don’t really care whether the officer has a body camera,” she said.

Zimmerman also said she is a proponent of “procedural justice,” which she said means “Just because you can do something, should you?” Her officers are also encouraged to use discretion and look at the spirit of the law in addition to the letter of the law.

She is also an advocate for emotional intelligence. “We tell our officers, don’t let the actions of someone else dictate what you are going to do. Don’t let someone else ramp you up. Be emotionally intelligent.”

Zimmerman said she emphasizes effective communication on the part of her officers. “How we talk to individuals will vary. What might work on this person over here might not work for someone else. Some words might calm one person down, and make someone else angry. So you have to be able to feel that out.”

Addressing a hot-button issue for police officers nationwide, she said she and her officers work to confront and address bias. “Everyone has a bias. But we can never let whatever our bias is interfere with our fair and impartial policing,” she said. “But we’re not perfect and there is a difference between excellence and perfection. We are excellent police force, but we are going to use that gap between excellence and perfection to continue to motivate us to improve every day.”

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Zimmerman added that these new approaches to police work are crucial to creating a force of individuals the community can count on. “I talk about confronting bias and emotional intelligence because everyone is an individual,” she said. “If I flip a coin 10 times and get heads each time, what are the odds I get heads again? Fifty-fifty. The coin doesn’t know what happened the other times. Just because you might have had one type of contact with someone, the next time you contact them, even if it’s the same individual, it’s a whole new situation. Take it at face value. We ask the community the same thing. Just because you’ve had a bad experience with one police officer, don’t paint us all with a broad brush.”

Attendee Jacque Nevels, the grandmother to four African-American young men, asked about what she should tell her grandsons about interactions with police. “There are some very disturbing things going on … and inappropriate behavior going both ways,” Nevels said.

Zimmerman replied with advice she would give to anyone, regardless of race or age. “If you get pulled over, cooperate with police. You can always file a complaint later, but cooperate and follow direction.”

After her presentation, attendees said they found Zimmerman’s speech to be “intelligent” and “inspiring.” New La Jolla resident Dave Heldt said having seen Zimmerman on television, he wanted see her in person. “She speaks very intelligently and she sticks with the facts. She’s rather unique in this profession, and I think she’s going to stay here by being so effective in her approach,” he said.

Added Mirium Tullgren, “I’m a teacher and I was looking for inspiration. It’s hard to keep going sometimes and I’m looking for strong female role models and the bits of advice that can give,” she said. “She was truly inspiring for me.”

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ore than 50 people turned out to hear San Diego Chief of Police Shelley Zimmerman speak about her career on Nov. 4 at the La Jolla Woman’s Club as part of its Women in Leadership series. Previous speakers included San Diego City Council president Sherri Lightner and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

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