The San Diego Police Department has come a long way since January, when then Chief William Lansdowne told Voice of San Diego and KPBS he wasn’t aware of racial profiling concerns in the community. Now, new police Chief Shelley Zimmerman is hearing them firsthand at a series of town hall meetings, to which Lansdowne had committed before he retired.

About 200 residents attended each of two meetings in southeastern San Diego and City Heights this week. Borrowing a theme from the mayor who appointed her, Zimmerman stressed the need for unity in solving crime in neighborhoods and the department.

“It’s all about working together with our police department – all the communities, one San Diego – to make San Diego, not only the safest city, but one where we have open dialogue with all of our communities,” Zimmerman said.

An open dialogue is what Zimmerman got, with audience members asking for everything from increased traffic patrols and information on recent crimes to details on new and reworked policies to deter racial profiling and officer misconduct.

I went to both meetings. Here are a few takeaways:

Zimmerman won’t say racial profiling is happening.

But she will say the perception that officers stop people on the basis of race is out there and important to address.

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

“If there’s even one person that has that perception in the community, then that’s reality and we need to change that reality.”

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Her comments suggest police brass have turned a corner since Voice of San Diego and KPBS revealed the department had stopped enforcing its policy to collect racial data during traffic stops:

Lansdowne isn’t troubled by the decrease in the department’s data collection efforts. He and his top deputies said residents don’t believe racial profiling is a problem.

“It hasn’t come up in years and years and years in interactions with the community,” said [then] Assistant Chief Shelley Zimmerman.

The department has since picked up its data efforts and will present three months’ worth of findings to the public in May. It will also roll out police body cameras for officers patrolling San Diego’s most diverse areas this summer and is asking officers to be more sensitive about asking those they stop whether they’re on probation and sitting people on the curb, two practices black residents have said are particularly degrading and hint at racial bias.

Expect to get more face time with police.

Zimmerman said the perception racial profiling is happening can be best addressed by officers discussing with community members their intent in stopping them. She said she’s urging her officers to take the extra step.

But some in the audience took issue with the idea the department has only a perception problem.

“It sounds like what you’re saying is you want to do a better job communicating why you were violating people’s civil rights to them,” said Josh Funn, a member of the group United Against Police Terror who was active in the Occupy movement. “It’s not about perception. You’re making it that. I can point out to you cops I’ve seen say racist things and be violent with people who have done nothing.”

Others at both meetings quietly affirmed the frustration with Zimmerman’s framing of the issue, but just as many said they were happy with her willingness to participate in a dialogue about it.

Zimmerman encouraged Funn to talk to one of the department’s internal affairs representatives after the meeting.

The department is billing its federal review as a premier solution. Not everyone is buying it.

At both meetings, a member of the audience asked Zimmerman why the department refused a federal monitor.

A quick explanation: Two types of external reviews have been on the table as the department struggles through continued misconduct allegations.

One is a federal monitor – a watchdog imposed by the Justice Department to oversee internal complaints and address all kinds of inappropriate behavior by officers. One of the victims of former officer Anthony Arevalos is asking a judge to make that happen as part of her lawsuit against the city.

The other option is a voluntary review by Justice Department researchers. The Police Department would be free to implement recommendations issued as part of the review — or to ignore them. SDPD has chosen this option because, well, it’s the only one you can actually choose.

But Zimmerman didn’t mention the call for an involuntary federal monitor at either meeting.

“We are welcoming this assessment – this thorough, independent, critical assessment,” Zimmerman said, referring to the six-month review the department applied for and was granted Monday.

But the fact that at least one audience member brought up the federal monitor in each session means there’s some doubt swirling about the efficacy of a voluntary assessment. And Zimmerman’s response didn’t acknowledge that the department could still face a mandatory watchdog.

Civil rights groups in Las Vegas had similar complaints when its police department underwent the same voluntary review program in 2012. The DOJ reported leaders there quickly began making changes based on its findings.

Community members are skeptical of the cop cams solution.

There were multiple questions at both meetings about whether police officers would be in charge of the record button on their body cameras.

Zimmerman said the department is looking at best practices in other departments but will likely require the officers to manually flip their cameras on when they initiate an enforcement stop.

When pressed by a southeastern San Diego resident to explain how the community could trust the officers are using the technology, Zimmerman said she’ll make them or take appropriate disciplinary measures if they don’t.

A lot of people like the police.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Audience members peppered both meetings with compliments submitted on note cards. One from southeastern San Diego:

“I’m a 45-year-old African American man. I want to thank the San Diego police department for treating me with respect throughout my 24 years in San Diego. I do, indeed feel safe.”

We didn’t get the full picture of those who don’t like them so much.

Paul Khalid Alexander of Pillars of the Community, a community nonprofit in Encanto, said he was disappointed to see few Latinos and Filipinos at the meeting in southeastern San Diego. He said both groups also experience racial discrimination but unifying ethnic and racial groups is an ongoing challenge in his neighborhood.

Zimmerman will get the chance to hear more perspectives in the coming weeks. She plans to visit every City Council district.

    This article relates to: City Heights, Community, Neighborhoods, News, Police, Police Misconduct, Public Safety, Racial Profiling, Share, Southeastern San Diego

    Written by Megan Burks

    Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her directly by emailing

    Ron Hinton
    Ron Hinton subscriber

    For God's Sake stop race mongering. It is your behavior that draws heat. Learn now, grow up and get a non-skin color accentuated life.

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    Thank you for this report. I am glad to see the concerns of community members represented. For far too long they have been marginalized and ignored by the Mayor and City Council in their civilian management of the SDPD. THOSE are whom we need to hold accountable for their failure to hold the SDPD accountable to the community it is sworn to serve and protect.

    Why isn't the schedule of Town Hall Meetings posted prominently on the SDPD website?

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    I just spoke with Chief Zimmerman's confidential secretary, Andrea, after being transferred a couple of times upon calling the SDPD general number, trying to find out the schedule for remaining Town Halls on behalf of my organization of women throughout the City of San Diego. She informed me that the next Town Halls have not been finalized yet, and that they usually rely on the Council District office to publicize them. I asked her to convey my strong suggestion that if the SDPD wants to demonstrate that it is serious about having better communication channels with the community, that it make the schedule of these Town Halls very prominent on its own website and in its community outreach. This should be true throughout the City's and City Council's social media, as well. She took my email address in order to advise me of the schedule of Town Halls as they are finalized. But it shouldn't be this hard for taxpayers and the public to find this out.

    Mary Desarno Woodward
    Mary Desarno Woodward

    I have a story that's needs your help! Could you please contact me asap? 619 357=0539 PLEASE HELP US he is innocent. In prison for something he never did! There is proof.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    Q: Why'd you pull me over?  What's the probable cause?

    A: Shut up.  Somebody robbed someone somewhere or something like that.

    Q: Are you a racist?

    A: No, I'm SDPD.

    Tyred subscriber

    @AzureMatty  You seem to have a chip on your shoulder. Cops only need reasonable suspicion or a traffic/equipment violation, not probably cause, to pull you over.  If you're a minority and you live in a 90% minority area, guess what, the chances are pretty good the cops will stop minorities.  

    Maybe the non-minorities who travel in those areas and get stopped should be waving the racist flag?

    Mind you, I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but it happens both ways.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    @Tyred @AzureMatty

    Dear Wonderbread Retread,

    You obviously haven't experienced the humiliation of five-oh pulling you over for no reason.


    Is that a chocolate chip?

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    Are there curfew sweeps in La Jolla?

    Tyred subscriber

    @AzureMatty @Tyred   Sure I have.  I'm white and the racial profiling is done by the black officers, too.  I don't know what their motivation is other than that cuz I never get a citation for anything, just a bunch of questions.  Until I ask if I'm free to go and if they have a legal detention or if I'm under arrest.

    Try it sometime.  And there's a lot more humiliating things in the world.

    Tyred subscriber

    @Martha Sullivan  Jake answered your question but why are you asking? Are there reasons to do curfew sweeps?  If a lot of problems are caused after 10 PM by kids under 18 in an area, then they should be done wherever those problems exist.

    Not doing so is bad policing.  Trying to prevent problems by enforcing existing laws on those causing the problems sounds like a good idea.