Shelley Zimmerman salutes
Retiring Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman salutes before leaving police headquarters in a vintage patrol car. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Shelley Zimmerman walked out of San Diego police headquarters for the final time Thursday — in an official capacity, anyway — almost four years to the day after she became the first female police chief in the city’s history.

The 58-year-old career cop made her official exit from the post during a brief mid-afternoon change-of-command ceremony with her successor, veteran local lawman David Nisleit, outside downtown SDPD headquarters.

Nisleit — who, like Zimmerman, worked for the San Diego Police Department for more than three decades before being nominated by the mayor to lead the agency — was unanimously confirmed as chief by the City Council on Monday and was sworn in the following day.

When Zimmerman stepped down from the post, the Ohio native ended a 35- year policing career that began after she moved to San Diego in 1981 without a job, a place to stay or any friends in the area.

Then-Mayor-elect Kevin Faulconer chose Zimmerman in February 2014 to lead the San Diego Police Department, and the council unanimously approved the selection the following month. She took over for William Lansdowne, who stepped away after more than 10 years as chief among a growing scandal involving sexual misconduct allegations against officers in the department.

One of Zimmerman’s first actions as chief, less than a month after she took the job, was to invite the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an independent assessment of the SDPD aimed at helping restore the public’s trust in the agency.

That probe, which largely looked at incidents that happened while Zimmerman was not yet chief, found gaps in agency policies on officer misconduct, a lack of consistent supervision and a failure to hold employees accountable.

Retiring Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman with incoming Chief David Nisleit outside police headquarters. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Zimmerman’s tenure as San Diego’s top cop was always destined to be short. When she was tapped for the job, the then-54-year-old assistant chief had already served 31 years with the department and had enrolled the year prior in a deferred retirement plan, leaving her with just four years of city employment remaining.

Faulconer said at the time he knew of the four-year constraint but picked Zimmerman anyway because the department needed immediate leadership in the wake of the sexual misconduct allegations.

But the longer-term challenge at the time, and for much of Zimmerman’s tenure, was the chronic underfunding of the department and attrition that had depleted its ranks over the years, pushed experienced officers to leave for better-paying jobs and fueled morale problems among the rank-and-file.

In 2015, a solution appeared to be in the cards when the City Council approved a five-year contract with the San Diego Police Officers Association that included 3.3 percent raises in each of the deal’s final two years. But in 2016, Zimmerman announced that a dozen officers per month were still leaving the agency, even more than before the new contract was approved.

Late last year — with the department facing a deficit of roughly 250 officers compared to the budgeted allotment of more than 2,000 — the city and the police union negotiated a new deal that would raise pay by up to 30.6 percent for some veteran employees. That deal was approved in December, raising pay for San Diego cops from near the bottom of law enforcement agency pay in the region and the state, to well above average.

“Dozens of our police officers who were going to leave our police department our now staying,” Zimmerman told the City Council in December. “Others that have recently left our police department are now inquiring about coming back to the San Diego Police Department. Just recently, we had more applicants take our physical abilities test in any one day than we have had in nearly three years.”

Zimmerman called the contract a “game-changer.” Previously she’d said “no department has been able to accomplish so much for so long with so few resources.”

During her tenure, Zimmerman dealt with many of the same problems that have plagued big cities across the country in recent years, including allegations of racial profiling by officers, accusations of officers too often using lethal force and demands for more police accountability.

The SDPD also faced questions during Zimmerman’s tenure over delays in 911 response times. In addition to securing a 15-percent pay raise for dispatchers two years ago, Zimmerman made big changes in their management, helping to drastically lower the time it takes for them to answer emergency calls.

Among other noteworthy incidents during Zimmerman’s tenure:

  • Introduction in 2014 of police body cameras
  • The arrest and conviction of husband-and-wife SDPD Officers Bryce and Jennifer Charpentier, who broke into homes while on duty and stole prescription painkillers to feed their drug addictions
  • The “friendly fire” shooting of Officer Heather Seddon, who was struck in the neck by a bullet fired from a colleague during an exchange of gunfire with a fleeing suspect. Seddon recovered from the injury and eventually returned to work
  • A lengthy standoff with a man who allegedly opened fire on SDPD officers in the Bankers Hill neighborhood
  • A four-day spree of violence targeting homeless men, assaults that left two of the victims dead and critically injured two others
  • A shooting in July 2016 that killed gang-unit Officer Jonathan “J.D.” DeGuzman and wounded his partner, Officer Wade Irwin
  • A shooting that killed a woman and injured six other people at a University City apartment complex last May. The rampage ended when officers killed the gunman during a shootout.

–City News Service