Analysis by Reporting San Diego
July 19, 2017 (San Diego). Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman is nearing retirement. The department will need a new chief. This means the department will need a new person that should change some of the direction of the department. This is a department with serious issues. The first is officer retention. This is a problem that neither Zimmerman, the city council, or the Police Officer Association have been able to solve. We suggest the problems, whatever they are, go beyond pay. If retention was just about compensation, the Memorandum of Understanding between the POA and the city should have gone a long way in solving it.
Over the years rumors have filtered across the thin blue line. They involve officers who could never do anything wrong. Officers who are favored for promotions and rarely if ever disciplined. Then there are the rumors of a culture of boys will be boys, in elite units such as the sex crimes unit. We saw some of this emerge with the Anthony Arevalos case, as well as subsequent cases. Arevalos was protected, up until he was arrested and prosecuted.
There was a rash of other cases, just before Chief William Landsdowne stepped down.
Zimmerman knows that some of the problems the department have are morale related, and the internal climate. According to a KPBS story in 2016:
Zimmerman cited a variety of reasons, including retirement, workload, morale and what she calls “the climate of what’s going on.”
“[Officers] feel that they’re not being trusted,” the chief said.
The PERF report did not talk about trust, but serious burnout, and an internal environment that was not healthy. The chief has also blamed the media for negative stories, which hurt recruitment into law enforcement. However, other departments in the county, or the state, do not have that problem. They exist in the same political and media environment. So the issues are internal to the department.
Here is where a new chief comes in. The department needs a new set of external eyes. Promotion from within will continue these familiar patterns. Her tenure proves this.
The department has another issue. This is community trust or lack of. Even after the San Diego State University study revealed the bias in police stops of both Latino and Black drivers, Zimmerman continued to deny the issue. Just because something has always been done one way, it does not mean change is not necessary. At this point, we have a number of studies in human psychology that speak to implicit bias against people of color in American society, and police forces in particular. It is silly to continue to deny this science. Whoever takes over the department should implement training programs for officers, from raw recruits at the academy, to top executives in the department.
It is important for officers to be aware of this bias. It is not just helpful while on patrol, but in everyday life. And if you are curious about your own, very unconscious biases, we are giving you the link to an online test.
Then there is a need to change how police think of themselves. Over the career of Chief Zimmerman, and presumably, whoever takes over the post, police departments across the country developed a warrior ethos. There are many problems with this. For starters, officers are not soldiers going out on combat patrol in Fallujah. They are sworn to serve and protect, ergo, they are supposed to be guardians, not combat troops.
This guardian ethos was recognized as something lacking by Policing in the 21st Century Commission. It is partly behind the numerous consent decrees that many police departments have entered into with the Federal Government. Warriors are not necessarily limited by pesky things like the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, both Federal and state. Ergo, that culture that believes officers are the first line of defense in this war against global terrorism must end. A new chief will need to rebuild the culture and impart a view of service, not combat patrol.
Then there is broken window policing. Many chiefs credit it, as well as stop and frisk, with the decline in crime rates starting in 1992. There are a few other possible explanations, including taking lead off gasoline. Crime rates are at an all time low, and even with the strain on SDPD, crime rates remain very low. It is high time for a new chief to stop paying lip service to community policing, and start doing it. We are aware this will require marked improvements in recruitment and retention. To do this, whoever takes over will need to face the significant internal culture challenges in the department.
We do not envy this future chief. The task will not be easy. More body cameras, or other technological solutions, will not solve the human element.