The city of San Diego received international acclaim in the 1990s for its approach to policing, thanks to a method that focused on preventing crime and building community trust rather than just responding to incidents. Shelley Zimmerman, who is expected to be approved as the city’s new chief Tuesday, knows about that legacy as much as anyone.
Before her ascension, Zimmerman served as assistant chief for neighborhood policing, a position created to manage the strategy, known as problem-oriented policing or community policing. That position saw her passing out candy at a Mount Hope YMCA’s Halloween party and touting the number of community meetings SDPD officers attend.
Zimmerman’s predecessor, William Lansdowne, focused on something else.
Lansdowne emphasized speedy response times. Under Lansdowne, SDPD analyzed a massive amount of crime data to deploy cops to probable hot spots. Lansdowne oversaw San Diego’s lowest crime rates in a half-century, but also let some policies to prevent officer misconduct and racial profiling fall by the wayside.
Deciding which approach to embrace will be one of the biggest decisions of Zimmerman’s tenure. Will she prioritize crime response like Lansdowne or crime prevention like the chiefs before him? (My old colleague Keegan Kyle shed great light on Lansdowne’s philosophy and SDPD’s history.)
Zimmerman was unavailable for an interview last week. A department spokesman said she plans to talk to the media soon. In the meantime, her statements on the department’s community policing record don’t offer much clarity.
Zimmerman responded to our 2011 piece on Lansdowne’s philosophy in an op-ed. She called our assertion that SDPD had moved away from community policing a “bizarre conclusion” that was “fundamentally flawed and does not reflect reality.” Yes, she said, the department had prioritized staffing patrol officers over community relations officers. But all officers had benefitted from 15 years of community policing training and community members had taken over the projects police officers used to lead, she said.
“The accessibility of our department has never been greater because the outreach today takes place throughout our entire city,” Zimmerman wrote.
Just a little more than a year later, however, Zimmerman was saying something different. SDPD proposed a $50 million-plus, five-year plan to hire dozens of new cops and civilians workers and invest in technology and equipment. Lansdowne said the whole point was to restore previous reductions in community policing, which Zimmerman had argued hadn’t been reduced. Lansdowne also called Zimmerman “the genius” behind the five-year plan.
In a July 2012 City Council committee hearing, Zimmerman said the effort would allow officers to be more proactive. She lamented that the department had fewer officers dedicated to addressing quality-of-life issues. And the community wasn’t happy.
“We are getting an earful,” Zimmerman said. “It’s because we did have a prior level of service that the community and ourselves, we enjoyed. That wonderful working relationship that we have with the community. They’re telling us, and each community is different, that we’re not responding as quickly.”