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.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

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.”

    This article relates to: News, Police, Police Misconduct, Share

    Written by Liam Dillon

    Liam Dillon is senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He leads VOSD’s investigations and writes about how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next? Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

    Justice subscriber

    Lansdowne did not preside over the lowest crime rate in San Diego. I've said this again and again on the news, and sent info to VOSA reporters. If you get the crime reports for the five years before Lansdowne and the year Lansdowne took office and five years thereafter, you will find a shocking reduction of crime time rate. But, as I've said over and over again, we learned in the jane Roe and jane Doe cases that the SDPD was required to UNDER REPORT crime so that it looked like crime was down. Don;t know how many more times I should have to inform the press of this - or maybe the press could just do the same CPRA request that I did....

    Swiftie subscriber

    Many departments require applicants to live in their city for one year prior to employment and remain a city resident as long as they serve. First and foremost, this allows background investigators to speak with neighbors and people that applicants interact with daily. Otherwise, background investigators only speak to their references, which are people that support the applicant. Living in the city also gives applicants a stake in their community. Most officers end up living far from SD and have no vested interest as it is not "their community." Statistically speaking, all departments struggle with bad apples. They exist in every organization. If you are a vested member of the community, seeing an officer behaving badly impacts you not only as a fellow officer, but also as a community member. It changes everything.

    Cameras are being used in most departments. They benefit good officers and good people that interact with officers. They are not good for bad officers and bad people. It is a win win for everyone. This department really needs to make basic, fundamental changes in how they hire and follow their officers. They need to use technology to their advantage and look at how other departments obtain good police officers that are vested in their community. Finally, we cannot hire good officers if we are not competitive. They are some of the lowest paid in comparison to same size cities and departments. They use failing equipment and antiquated technology. All of the good applicants are going to get hired by departments that offer more than we do, it is simple decision making 101. If we are left with a bottom of the barrel applicant pool, we end up with bottom of the barrel officers, and that hurts everyone. It is time to get with the program and make this department a modern and competitive place to work.