San Diego mayor’s choice for police chief is from law enforcement family

David Nisleit, assistant chief of patrol operations for the San Diego Police Department, is the mayor’s choice to be that city’s next chief of police.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The man poised to become San Diego’s next police chief comes from a law enforcement family and says he thinks about police work nearly around the clock, but Dave Nisleit didn’t aspire to be the city’s top cop until late in his career.

Nisleit’s father was a 35-year San Diego Police Department veteran who retired as a captain in 1999, his uncle was a police officer in Wisconsin, and his son Ryan recently graduated from the San Diego Police Academy and joined the local force.

“We kind of consider law enforcement a family business, especially with San Diego,” Nisleit said on Thursday after Mayor Kevin Faulconer tapped him to become the city’s next chief. “It’s a passion; it’s a hobby; it’s a job.”


Nisleit’s appointment as chief must be confirmed by the City Council during a hearing that’s been scheduled for Feb. 26, two weeks after a Feb. 12 council subcommittee hearing to gather feedback from the public on Nisleit.

If he is confirmed as chief, Nisleit said he will be achieving a goal that only seemed possible to him recently.

Hired as a patrol officer in 1988, Nisleit quickly achieved his initial goal of joining the SWAT team and then completed his long-term ambition of becoming captain of a patrol command, which he described as “being the mini-chief of a community.”

Nisleit, 52, said thoughts of rising to chief didn’t occur to him until he got exposed to bigger things after transferring to the homicide division and then watched one of his mentors, Shelley Zimmerman, rise to chief in 2014.

“I started to think this would be a pretty cool thing,” said Nisleit, who was promoted to assistant chief in 2016. “It’s been a dream of mine for a while now, and it’s almost surreal that it’s actually coming true.”

Nisleit has put together an impressive police career that has included steadily rising through the ranks with assignments focused on gangs, sex crimes, robbery and narcotics.


He was assigned to the beach communities when alcohol first became illegal at the beach a decade ago. He has overseen planning for more than 1,000 special events such as Comic-Con and the recent Women’s March. And he coordinated the investigation leading to the 2016 arrest of a serial killer targeting the homeless.

Nisleit also has experience in some of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. His first patrol assignment was in Logan Heights, and his first command post was leading the Mid-City Division, which includes City Heights.

He said he will focus on making the department more ethnically diverse as he tries to fill 200 officer vacancies with a national recruiting campaign, larger police academies and signing bonuses for officers from other law enforcement agencies.

Another priority will be addressing the issue of racial profiling, following a San Diego State University study that found blacks and Hispanics get searched more often after getting pulled over by San Diego police.

Despite those problems, Nisleit said he’s taking over a department that’s far better off than when Zimmerman became chief four years ago.

He said staffing problems and some ethnic tensions are far less daunting than the more than a dozen misconduct cases Zimmerman inherited, which led to a U.S. Department of Justice audit and 40 recommended policy changes.

“I truly believe that is behind us,” he said.

Nisleit, who worked closely with Zimmerman during several portions of his career, said she’s had a significant influence on him and his leaderships skills.

“She’s been a mentor of mine ever since I was a sergeant,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot from her both in one-on-one conversations, but also from watching. Her work ethic is unmatched. I’m going to try to match it as close as I can.”

Zimmerman, who must retire March 1 because of her participation in the city’s deferred retirement option program, on Thursday praised Nisleit as a worthy successor.

“He is an exceptional, proven leader who has given his all to our department and city,” she said.

He was also praised by the leader of the policer officers labor union, who called Nisleit “a cop’s cop” and a “fair leader” who hasn’t shied away from tough assignments.

The union president, Jack Schaeffer, said Nisleit’s wide range of experience in various units of the department means he has seen how things get handled from many different angles.

“He’s a very task-driven person who can get things done,” Schaeffer said.

Mayor Faulconer also praised Nisleit, whom he chose from among six finalists for the chief job after a national search than began in September.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with Chief Nisleit -- and Captain Nisleit -- for a number of years and he’s a person of integrity, a person who’s approachable and a person who’s well-respected in the community,” Faulconer said.

If confirmed as chief, Nisleit’s annual salary would increase from $147,790 to $205,000.

Garrick writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.