San Diego police chief gives public a role in her reform strategy

San Diego's police chief is facing some daunting fiscal and public-confidence challenges in her department

SAN DIEGO — Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman had just left the School Safety Patrol's annual holiday party, where she praised 2,000 elementary school students for "helping keep San Diego one of the safest large cities in the United States."

She handed out awards and, as the students squealed in delight, showed off some dance steps as a police officer with a guitar strummed the tune to "Lean on Me."

She stopped to talk to a television reporter and then was off to the Hmong community's New Year celebration and a gathering at the Jackie Robinson YMCA.

In a city with 125 patrol areas and dozens of interest groups, Zimmerman is determined to meet with as many as possible, as quickly as possible, often giving out her cellphone number. More than just a peripatetic work style is at play.

The 55-year-old Zimmerman, the first female chief in city history, is facing some daunting challenges, including the city's seemingly intractable financial problems and wavering public confidence due to abusive behavior by police.

Credibility takes years to build, Zimmerman said as she wheeled her sport utility vehicle from one appearance to another, and can be lost rapidly when residents feel disconnected from law enforcement.

One of her priorities is to convince the public that the department does not condone racial profiling. "It doesn't matter what I think," she said. "It's what the community thinks that counts."

A veteran of three decades with the department, Zimmerman was appointed by Mayor Kevin Faulconer soon after his election in February.

He disregarded suggestions that the city should conduct a nationwide search to find a successor to Bill Lansdowne, who retired the day Faulconer took office.

Without criticizing Lansdowne, Faulconer said there was no time to waste doing a search. Naming Zimmerman, then an assistant chief, is "a real opportunity to revitalize and reinvigorate our police department," the mayor said.

In his state of the city address next week, Faulconer is expected to provide his assessment of the Police Department and Zimmerman's efforts to regain public trust.

Next month, the results of an audit authorized by the U.S. Department of Justice of San Diego's recruitment, hiring, training and supervision of police officers are set to be released. Zimmerman has pledged to follow its recommendations.

Zimmerman, Lansdowne and other city officials requested the audit nearly a year ago after more than a dozen acts of officer misconduct, including off-duty domestic violence, on-duty sexual assault, drunk driving and use of force.

"If you have that many incidents, then you don't have aberrations — you have a system that allows officers to do that stuff and remain officers," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, policy director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial counties. "That's a systemic problem."

Attorney Dan Gilleon, suing the city on behalf of nude dancers who allege they were abused during police raids on strip clubs, said the department has had "a good-old-boys club where the cops in the club protect each other, in part because they've cashed in chips with each other over the years and know each other's transgressions."

The most egregious police misconduct case involved Anthony Arevalos, an 18-year veteran who was sentenced in 2012 to eight years in prison after being convicted of demanding sexual favors from women stopped for driving infractions. The city and its insurance carrier have paid more than $8 million to settle claims by women assaulted by Arevalos.

After the largest of the claims was settled out of court, Zimmerman praised the woman who brought it for showing courage by speaking out.

The task of reviewing the department's handling of the Arevalos case and other issues has been assigned by the Department of Justice to the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based nonprofit. "This misconduct has impacted community trust," the group said in explaining the reason for the investigation.

Whether the group's report will settle the issue of whether the San Diego department has a systemic problem that led to misconduct is unclear. "People will have to make that determination once the report is complete," said the group's executive director, Chuck Wexler.

Zimmerman, along with Councilman Todd Gloria, disagreed that the Police Department has a systemic problem. Arevalos and the others are "outliers, bad apples," not signs of corruption, Gloria said.

But Councilwoman Marti Emerald, who chairs a council committee that oversees the Police Department, is not as sure about the bad-apple explanation. She's concerned that in recent years "certain behaviors were tolerated, [certain officers] did look the other way."

Zimmerman, Emerald said, "is doing a job that needs to be done" — making herself accessible to the public and taking a hard line with officers who might abuse their authority. "She's growing into the job," Emerald said.

Zimmerman has reestablished the professional-standards unit to watch for signs of potential misconduct among officers. She has also announced a policy requiring an officer to file a report when he or she sees misconduct by a colleague.

After allegations that some young men of color feel they are being targeted for traffic stops, the department resumed keeping racial statistics on such stops. The first batch of numbers is being analyzed by the department and the ACLU.

Zimmerman has ordered officers not to routinely ask drivers during traffic stops if they are on parole or probation or require them to sit on the curb during questioning. Both are disrespectful, she said.

With the support of the mayor and City Council, the department also now requires officers to wear body cameras. By year's end, the goal is to have 1,000 officers with cameras.

From a recent meeting with a transgender activist came a memo from the chief instructing officers to use the pronoun that reflects how the individual prefers to be addressed, and not to assume that a transgender person is engaged in prostitution or other criminality.

During meetings with African American ministers and then with Latino community leaders, Zimmerman stressed her opposition to racial profiling and urged that anyone with concerns contact her directly.

"We need you, and you need us," she told the groups. With the department's chronic shortage of manpower, beat cops spend much of their time responding to calls, depriving them of "proactive" time needed to talk with residents and learn their concerns.

Decades of tight budgets have left San Diego with one of the smallest police departments of any large U.S. city. Other departments offer better salaries and pensions, and each year dozens of officers leave for jobs elsewhere.

Zimmerman carries in her pocket a manpower rundown, as if the concern is never far from her mind: The department is authorized for 2,013 officers but has only 1,859. An additional 400 officers are eligible to retire.

"She faces challenges that are monstrous," said Jeff Jordan, a police sergeant and vice president of the San Diego Police Officers Assn. "We are in a full-blown crisis in terms of the demographics in this department."

During the recession and the decade-long controversy over spiraling pension payments, the city eliminated civilian positions in the Police Department, left officer positions vacant and closed the storefronts that were central to the city's "community-oriented" policing.

"This is the product of years of neglect and years of not having our priorities straight," Emerald said. "Everybody says we are doing community policing — sure, just barely."

The city is negotiating with the police union over a possible salary boost in hopes of retaining experienced officers. Faulconer also has earmarked money to add officers.

Zimmerman has worked patrol, vice, narcotics, internal affairs and multicultural relations and was the driver for then-Mayor Maureen O'Connor.

She grew up in a suburb of Cleveland and, as a student at Ohio State, came west for the 1980 Rose Bowl with the Buckeyes playing USC. With a degree in criminal justice, she joined the San Diego department in 1982.

Starting as a beat cop, Zimmerman was known for meeting with as many groups and organizations as possible.

"That's a factor in her success," said Michael Brunker, longtime executive director of the Jackie Robinson YMCA. "She checks your temperature. She checks your pulse."

Tony.perry@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATsandiego

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