San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman (photo by John Gregory)
SDPD chief reflects on achievements
By John Gregory

San Diego Police Department (SDPD) Chief Shelley Zimmerman, a Scripps Ranch resident, will retire from the force in March because she is at the end of the five-year limit of the city's Deferred Retirement Option Plan. Her upcoming retirement prompted the City of San Diego to mount a national search for her replacement, which is no easy task as the deadline approaches.

Zimmerman, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, earned a degree in Criminal Justice from The Ohio State University. She also graduated from the FBI National Academy. Zimmerman joined the SDPD in 1982 and, after a career with the department spanning a vast array of assignments, was promoted to chief of police in 2014.

Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman displayed her sense of humor at the Scripps Ranch Fourth of July Parade as she rode around the streets in a miniature police car. (photo by John Gregory)

During her term as chief, Zimmerman seemed to be everywhere. She was highly visible to the public and readily accessible to the media. For instance, Zimmerman attended the inaugural San Diego Security Show in Mission Valley. The Security Show was a physical security and surveillance exposition featuring biometrics (facial recognition), anti-drone technology, video surveillance networking, GPS-based personnel tracking systems, surveillance camera housing units, and an ambitious schedule of guest speakers. Chief Zimmerman was preparing to enter a banquet hall at the Security Show where she was featured in a panel discussion when she agreed to a spontaneous interview.

She reflected on some of her accomplishments during her term as chief but, in keeping with the theme of the exposition, she spoke most about security threats, both criminal and terrorist-related, that cause her concern. She began by describing new threats brought about by social media as well as the world’s dependence on digital technology.

“All issues of cyber security … Where are the boundaries now with cyber security when you talk about crime?” she said. “So, everyone has to not just physically secure your person, your residence, your business, but you also have to be secure in the cyber world. … There are no boundaries.”

Zimmerman later expanded on this subject during the panel discussion, explaining that with social media tools such as Facebook and Periscope, there is always the possibility someone bad might share SDPD’s tactical information in real time.

The internet has connected people so much, Zimmerman said, that “when something happens across the world, I get a notification,” adding that she must always ask herself if it is some kind of globally-coordinated attack that could happen in San Diego as well.

“When something happens at a military installation, I’m immediately on the phone,” she said.

Zimmerman and her department have been tasked with keeping a large number of public events safe during the course of each year. She explained some of the techniques necessary to succeed in such a large assignment.

“It’s using technology to assist us, and then old-fashioned police work. You have to use every possible legal tool that you can,” she said.

San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman and Scripps Ranch News publisher John Gregory at the San Diego Security Show.

Chief Zimmerman is understandably proud of the SDPD’s record of providing safety during large events, and she used her experiences as an example during the forum, which was titled “Things that Keep You Up at Night.”

She referred to San Diego’s event-filled month of July 2016 as an instance of a challenging time to keep the public safe, having multiple soft targets to protect. That particular month included four weeks of mass gatherings in the city including the crowd-heavy Fourth of July weekend, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, Pride Week and Comic-Con.

She said the SDPD utilized surveillance cameras to watch the crowds, and explained the importance of using physical barriers, including the positioning of police vehicles. She also said placing SWAT teams in over-watch positions was very useful and added to the command posts receiving real time information during the events. In addition, she credited the cooperation and coordination of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies as being critical.

Zimmerman, who has experience in surveillance and undercover work, was asked if the SDPD used undercover agents in disguises patrolling such large events.  

“As we like to say: we had additional resources that you would see and additional resources that you did not see, which would include cameras, it would include our undercover officers,” she answered.
When asked about the use of drones, she stated that the SDPD was not using drones at that time, but was aware of possible threats that might involve drones.

“That’s something that’s definitely out there,” she said. “If people want to use that for nefarious entities, that’s something we do think about.”

Since she was attending a show that displayed a large amount of new technology, Zimmerman was questioned about anything new and different the SDPD might be utilizing in the near-future.

“I wouldn’t say new and different. It’s continue to do what we continue to do,” she explained. “Crime was down last year as compared to the year before. … The criminal element that is out there that wish to do people harm, their expense account is wide open. They don’t have a budget they have to deal with. So, we have to make sure we use the technology we have, our resources and, again, as a force multiplier, every single one of our public.”

On a national level, Zimmerman stated that the SDPD does receive some federal funding in the form of grants that assist the force with technology, as well as “other tools that help deter crime.” She commented briefly on the ways the Trump administration policies had affected the SDPD, focusing mostly on the issue of immigration.

“I’ll tell you right now, we are not a sanctuary city,” she said. “So, if someone is arrested they are taken to a jail where their immigration status is checked. I think we should be a model here in San Diego for our cooperation, our collaboration with our state, local and federal law enforcement partners. It’s all of us working together sharing information to make sure we keep our entire region safe. … We are one of the safest big cities in the entire United States and that is not by luck.”