Growing up in Ohio, new San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman recalled: “If I saw someone being picked on, I wouldn’t allow that to happen.”
“I tried to always know what the right thing was,” she said in a 3,200 word story last week in San Diego Jewish World. “A lot of it was that we would take the time to listen to other people, to spend time with them if we saw that someone was hurting or wasn’t having a good day. We’d go out and try to make it better for them.”The same applies to cleaning up the San Diego Police Department.
Editor Don Harrison, in a pre-Passover profile, wrote:
“I absolutely welcome this Department of Justice COPS program assessment to come in because if they can show us, somehow tell us, how we can improve our processes that we don’t even have to hire someone who is going to make the terrible decisions to dishonor our badge, I want to know this information. I want to know this so we don’t have to hire them.”
She declared that the professional standards division under her administration is “coming back.”
“Their main purpose, and I don’t talk a lot about it because I want it mysterious, … is to go after those very few who have overshadowed the fantastic and great work that our officers and civilian personnel and volunteers have done every single day,” she said.
Noting the “very stringent requirements” to become a San Diego police officer, she said: “We’ve gotten it right a thousand times over the years, but we haven’t gotten it right every time.”
Zimmerman said she was encouraged by other cities’ reports on officers wearing small video cameras to record their field contacts.
Harrison revealed many details of the chief’s personal life as well:
It would be hard to say if Chief Zimmerman is more enthusiastic about her mother’s cooking, or about sports. She is a huge sports fan who is devoted to Ohio State University, where she majored in criminal justice. Zimmerman visited San Diego in 1980 to attend the Rose Bowl game between Ohio State and the University of Southern California.
Eventually, she fell in love with San Diego, returning with “about $200 in my pocket, one suitcase and my guitar.”
After attending the Police Academy in 1982, she said she joined the Police Department, “thinking I would still go to law school. I had put myself through college, and I figured I would put myself through law school. … and so here I am, 31 years later the chief of police. It goes to show if you work hard, anything is possible.”
She said: “Yes, I have posed as a prostitute. I have infiltrated bookmaking rings when I was working undercover.”
She recalls a chat with Bill Kolender, the first Jewish police chief of San Diego.
“I walk in and he introduces me to his aunts,” Zimmerman told Harrison. “He said: ‘This is Shelley Zimmerman. She is a police officer and a Jewish police officer,’ and the two aunts look right at me and what do they say? ‘What the matter with you? You couldn’t have married a doctor or a lawyer?’ I laughed, and I said, ‘Chief, come on, not only do I have to get that from my family; I have to get it from yours?’ And that became our joke, we always talked about it.”
Zimmerman provided more details on her undercover stint at Patrick Henry High School, posing as a junior.
“Within a couple of days — actually the very first day — I saw blatant use of drugs: narcotics, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, psilocybin, acid, PCP,” she said. “I had to go to class, do homework, and in the end I made over 100 purchases, and more than 70 students were arrested.”
Students were even making pipes to smoke marijuana as part of their shop class projects, she said.
The arrests were a surprise, and one student told Zimmerman: “You can’t be a cop, you can’t be a narc. There is no way you could be a cop. I was going to vote for you for homecoming queen!”
But she also received thanks from several students she arrested.
One told her: “I was going down the wrong path and you gave me a huge wakeup call.”
Harrison wrote: “Others called to let her know that after turning their lives around, they had graduated from college or had families. One called up and said he became a doctor, and said it wouldn’t have happened probably if it hadn’t been for this.”
She told Harrison: “Being a San Diego police officer means the world to me. It has been an honor and a privilege to wear this uniform and this badge, an honor and a privilege. I don’t take that for granted any single day that I am out here.”
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