Reflections On What Remains To Be Done After Police Chief Zimmerman Retires

Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman made history when she was named San Diego’s first female chief in 2014. As San Diegans and the San Diego Police Department plan for her retirement and prepare to welcome her successor, there are the inevitable reflections on Chief Zimmerman’s career and legacy.

Throughout her career and during her short tenure as the city’s top cop, Chief Zimmerman’s hard work and dedication have been commendable. It is also important to reflect on the unfulfilled opportunities if we are to make a critical, honest assessment of changes needed to ensure our police department serves all San Diegans fairly and equally.

Under Zimmerman’s leadership, racial disparities in police stops and searches have persisted. An independent San Diego State University analysis of the more than 250,000 SDPD traffic stops made between 2014 and 2015 found that Black and Latino motorists were twice as likely to be searched, but were less likely to have contraband, compared to white drivers. This means police officers make more mistaken and unnecessary searches of people of color. The same SDSU researchers found that Black, Latino, and Asian American San Diegans were more likely to be approached and questioned by police officers than white San Diegans.

Black and Latinos are disproportionately targeted for inclusion in SDPD’s controversial gang database. In at least one incident, Black youth were unlawfully stopped, and their DNA collected and put in an SDPD database.

Police practices that disproportionately target San Diego’s communities of color through mass surveillance technologies, such as ShotSpotter, Stingrays and license plate readers, grew during Zimmerman’s tenure. And she has been out of step with new laws that focus on criminal justice reform, such as Prop. 47 – a law that reclassifies some felonies as misdemeanors – and the recent legalization of marijuana.

SDPD’s record on immigration enforcement is equally troubling.

Despite public promises that San Diego’s police force will not serve as de facto immigration agents, there have been reports of officers asking people for immigration documents. Moreover, we recently learned that the department shares license plate reader information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – in clear conflict with the values outlined by Chief Zimmerman and the City Council.

Chief Zimmerman deserves praise for her accomplishments. However, she fell short in bringing the kind of change the department really needs to ‘protect and serve’ all San Diegans fairly and equally.

It is our hope that San Diego’s next chief will institute meaningful improvements in how police officers interact with the people they serve, especially people of color.

On February 26, the San Diego City Council will hold a public confirmation hearing to consider the qualifications and vision of Zimmerman’s proposed successor, Assistant Chief David Nisleit. We urge concerned San Diegans to attend this hearing, to listen carefully, and to convey their expectations of fair and equal treatment to the council and our next chief.