Straight from the badge: Rotary Club hears police chief on public trust, new developments

San Diego Police chief Shelley Zimmerman speaks at a rotary club of la Jolla meeting Sept. 30.
(Ashley Mackin)

The Rotary Club of La Jolla’s motto is “service above self” and at its Sept. 30 meeting at La Valencia Hotel, San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman explained why she believes the concept also applies to America’s Finest.

“This badge we wear is not just a piece of polished metal,” she told the group, “it is our symbol of service above self. It is our symbol of honesty, integrity, dedication, distinction, personal courage, professionalism and the oath we took to protect and serve.”

Sometimes using humor to convey her point, Zimmerman addressed what she referred to as a sense of decreasing public satisfaction in San Diego police officers, her efforts as chief thus far, and her plans for the department moving forward.

“We have had a few officers over the years who have made the terrible decision to discredit our badge and dishonor our noble profession. I, as chief, and we, as a department, are not going to tolerate that,” she said, adding that in her first week as chief, she sat down with division captains and discussed the department’s code of ethics. “I’ve instilled a culture of excellence in our police and we will demand that culture of ourselves,” she said.

She also implemented an employee development and training program to bring newer officers up to speed. “We are in a huge rebuilding mode right now,” she said. “I have 400 officers who are eligible to retire. On the other side, I have more than half my officers who work patrol, who have six years or fewer in our police department ... so we are either really experienced or really inexperienced.”

Zimmerman said her department may receive 1,000 job applicants, though not all are qualified for the law enforcement positons they seek.

When she asked the Rotarians whether they could recall the words written on the doors of San Diego police cars, she wasn’t talking about “To protect and serve.”

“It says ‘America’s Finest,’ ” she said. “It doesn’t say San Diego’s Finest, it says America’s Finest and that is what you are going to get from me as chief of this department.”

One way she sees that happening, and something that “could not come fast enough” is outfitting officers with body cameras to document all encounters. The Northern Division, which includes La Jolla, is the next division to start using them, based on its size and the fact that its officers cover many San Diego beaches.

“The goal is to have every patrol officer wear a body camera by the end of next year and I am a huge proponent of that,” she said.

Another way is to have police engage in conversations with residents. “I like to drive around in my black Chief of Police car,” she said, “First of all, because it’s cool, but also because I find the community likes that the Chief of Police is driving around.” She said it also affords her a chance to speak with citizens one on one.

“Crime statistics are only one measurement of how safe an area is. What I want to know is, ‘Do you feel safe in your neighborhood?’ Because if the answer is ‘No,’ it doesn’t matter what the statistic says,” Zimmerman added, waving her arms as if throwing statistics out the window.

When she reminded Rotarians that she is an Ohio State University graduate — an audience member booed, to which she replied, “It’s OK, not everyone can get into Ohio State.”

Zimmerman then recalled first traveling to San Diego in 1980 to attend a football game with her boyfriend (while a junior). “We rented a car and came down (from Los Angeles) to go to the zoo. I had no idea places like (San Diego) existed. I made a decision then and there I had shoveled my last driveway,” she said.

After graduation, Zimmerman returned and made her way up the ranks of the San Diego Police Department to her current post. Joking that she could share police stories for hours, Rotary Club president Russell King said he was hesitant to “cut her off” because “most of our speakers do not carry guns.”

The Rotary Club supports the San Diego Police Foundation, which provides trauma kits and K9 police dogs to the department.

Rotary and San Diego Police Foundation board member Charles Hartford said the foundation exists “to support the men and women who keep us safe in San Diego. I think few San Diegans recognize that virtually every dog (in the K-9 police unit) that helps fight and stop crime is privately funded. That partnership to support our men and women in blue is something we take great pride in doing.”