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City Council members hope Shelley Zimmerman will tell them more than her predecessor did.
If there was any break in city leaders’ parade of positivity that accompanied San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne’s recent exit, it came when City Council swore in his successor, Shelley Zimmerman.
“We had Chief Lansdowne come and talk to us about some of the issues in the Police Department, and unfortunately wasn’t as forthcoming until later in his time,” City Councilman David Alvarez said.
Alvarez was addressing a disconnect about Lansdowne’s relationship with the Council and the community. Privately, Lansdowne believed years of budget cuts had affected officers’ loyalty to the department and contributed to the spike in officer misconduct problems. Publicly, he rarely said anything about the cuts.
In July 2012, after the passage of former Mayor Jerry Sanders’ final budget, Lansdowne went to the Council with a $66 million, five-year plan to hire more officers and upgrade equipment and technology. Council members received Lansdowne well. But Councilman Todd Gloria also told the chief he was frustrated the request came after the Council had the opportunity to fund it.
Boyd Long, a former SDPD assistant chief who left last year, had nothing but praise for Lansdowne’s tenure, but said the chief was reluctant to speak openly about the department’s needs. Lansdowne, Long said, took his marching orders from his boss, the mayor, and wasn’t going to go against him publicly.
“Bill Lansdowne is the kind of guy who will take the hill when the boss says to take the hill,” Long said. “Shelley’s the kind of chief who will say, ‘OK, I’ll take the hill, but some things may get burnt when we take the hill. You still wanna do it?’ That’s the difference in leadership.”
Like Long, Council members and the police union have reason to believe Zimmerman will be more vocal.
She pushed for recent improvements to the department’s gun range. She also led an effort to switch the department’s wireless provider from Sprint to Verizon after officers near the Mexican border and in the northern part of the city had trouble getting service, police union vice president Jeff Jordon said.
“That gave her a lot of credibility with the [police union] board, who watched her take the lead on it and do something when nobody else was,” Jordon said.
Beyond Zimmerman’s potentially different approach to airing police needs publicly, here are four more things to know about the new chief.
In her 32 years in the department, Zimmerman has had just about every job you can think of. Undercover high school student. Bodyguard for the mayor. Internal Affairs. Vice. In the mid-1990s, she was working narcotics when she got into some controversy.
Zimmerman and four other SDPD cops went into a City Heights home after a tip about drug sales there. The Guatemalan family inside the house alleged in a federal lawsuit that the officers, in plainclothes, roughed them up, ransacked their house and threatened their 5-year-old daughter with a gun.
In a court filing, the city said Zimmerman and the other officers were serving a warrant after a confidential informant purchased cocaine from someone in the apartment. After the officers entered, they handcuffed the people inside, searched the home, found nothing and left within an hour.
“The only force used in serving the warrant was a show of firearms, including an automatic machine gun used by Officer Zimmerman,” according to the city’s filing.
The case settled and the family received $5,000. Zimmerman said she had only a vague recollection of the incident.
Just before he officially became mayor, Kevin Faulconer chose Zimmerman as his police chief. The two go way back.
Zimmerman began leading the department’s northern division, which covers Clairemont and beach neighborhoods from Mission Beach to Torrey Pines, in 2008, which was early in Faulconer’s City Council tenure. Her neighborhoods overlapped with many Faulconer represented, and the political hot topic du jour at the time was banning booze at the beach.
They talked about beach alcohol crime, and Faulconer learned Zimmerman was training for the same triathlon he was. They began jogging together on the Mission Beach boardwalk, and Faulconer invited her to join his biking group. Faulconer and Zimmerman told me they didn’t remember who had a better time in that first triathlon.
“We’re very competitive,” Zimmerman said. “He’s beaten me some. I’ve beaten him some.”
After that first race, Faulconer said, the two continued to jog together about once a week.
“I would talk often about what was happening in the department from her perspective,” Faulconer said.
On those runs, Faulconer learned details about the department’s problems with the Sprint wireless contract. He also learned about how the city’s hiring process was potentially making it harder for SDPD to get recruits. Faulconer later pushed hard in committee hearings to fix both concerns.
Zimmerman appeared by Lansdowne’s side at many Council meetings and when dealing with the media. She had the numbers and policy details to support the broad points he wanted to make.
I got my own reminder of this recently: Back in January, Lansdowne was set to appear on KPBS radio with myself and ACLU attorney Gabriela Rivera to discuss our January police racial profiling investigation. The morning of the interview, the police department told KPBS Lansdowne would only go on if Zimmerman could, too.
Lansdowne was supposed to follow the radio show with a TV segment for KPBS. Again, Lansdowne said he wouldn’t go on without Zimmerman.
In the end, Lansdowne appeared with Zimmerman for the radio interview, but refused to do the TV segment when producers couldn’t fit an extra person on the set.
Last Friday, Zimmerman did a round of media interviews. On KPBS television, she reiterated her support for an independent audit to identify potential problems with the department’s handling of sexual misconduct cases. Zimmerman also reiterated her opposition to calls for a third party to monitor the department. That prompted San Diego State University public affairs professor Joshua Chanin to tweet this:
— Joshua Chanin (@JoshuaChanin) March 8, 2014
This highlights a tension in her ascension as chief. Repeated misconduct allegations and the department’s knowledge of problems with troubled cops led to calls for change within SDPD. Yet, the person chosen to make the changes has spent the last three decades within SDPD.
Zimmerman has said she’ll reinstate a police anticorruption unit Lansdowne had gotten rid of. More changes, she said, are coming.
“There are things that I will absolutely be able to institute because I am the chief of police,” Zimmerman told me. “I wasn’t the chief of police before.”