When Shelley Zimmerman moved to San Diego from Beachwood in October 1981, she had no idea she would eventually become the city’s first female chief of police.

“I came out here and didn’t know anyone, didn’t have a place to stay, didn’t have a job,” she said in a telephone interview from San Diego. “And here I am, 32 years later, chief of the San Diego Police Department. It just goes to show if you work hard, you can do anything.”

Zimmerman, a 1977 graduate of Beachwood High School, was unanimously confirmed as the city’s 34th police chief by San Diego City Council March 4. She was then sworn in by San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who named her to the post Feb. 26 following the retirement of former Chief William Lansdowne.

A 31-year veteran of the city’s police department, Zimmerman had been an assistant chief, overseeing neighborhood policing, for four and one-half years. She became acting chief March 3, when Lansdowne’s resignation became effective.

“I’m absolutely thrilled and honored to have this opportunity,” she said. “I have known Mayor Faulconer for a long time. We are friends. He knows my qualifications, we have worked together on many projects over the years, and he knows my passion.”

Zimmerman said when Lansdowne, who served 10 years as the city’s police chief, decided to retire, she had a lengthy conversation with Faulconer about her vision for the department.

“After that conversation, he offered me the position to be the next chief of the San Diego Police Department, and I was thrilled to accept it immediately,” she said.

Zimmerman’s younger brother, Shaker Heights Councilman and Vice Mayor Rob Zimmerman, and their mother, Elaine Zimmerman of Beachwood, both attended the swearing-in ceremony. Rob Zimmerman, a lawyer, had the honor of pinning the chief badge on his sister’s uniform after she was sworn in, with their mother beaming alongside them.

“It was an overwhelming experience,” Rob Zimmerman said. “I was just so incredibly proud of Shelley. I saw my sister is very well liked and well respected among not only the police department, but also the mayor and city council.”

Before council’s approval of Zimmerman as chief, each member spoke, and they were “very effusive in their praise of Shelley,” Rob Zimmerman said.

“This was a moment in history, the first female chief in the history of the San Diego Police Department, and one of very few in the country in a major city,” he said. “But Shelley didn’t get this because she is a woman; she got it because she was the best person for the job. My sister worked very hard to get where she is, and she sacrificed a lot of things along the way. She has a real vision for the police department, and she is going to bring a lot of positive change to the department.”

Zimmerman, 54, was a junior at The Ohio State University in Columbus, majoring in criminal justice, in 1980 when she traveled to Pasadena, Calif., with some friends to take in the Rose Bowl college football game between OSU and USC.

“I'm very sad to say (OSU) lost, 17-16, and (USC) took the national championship away from us,” she said. “But we rented a car to go to the world-famous San Diego Zoo. We looked around the city, and I thought, ‘This is the most beautiful city. I have shoveled my last driveway.’”

Zimmerman had been planning to go to law school. But that trip to San Diego “changed everything,” she said.

“I graduated (from OSU in 1981) and decided to come out here,” she said. “I’m sure I broke my parents’ heart. I think my dad (the late Phil Zimmerman) was counting on me to take over his law practice.”

A graduate of the FBI National Academy, Zimmerman was hired by the San Diego Police Department in 1982. She started out as a patrol officer and rose through the ranks.

“One of my early assignments was to go undercover, (posing) as a Patrick Henry High School student, to determine who was selling drugs in the school,” she said. “I made over 100 purchases of narcotics from students during that time. In the end, more than 70 students were arrested for a variety of illegal narcotics.”

Beachwood gallery inductee

A year later, in 1985, Zimmerman was inducted into the Beachwood High School Gallery of Success. The inscription on her plaque reads, “In recognition of her skill, courage and outstanding record as a law and drug enforcement officer and her efforts to educate young people about chemical abuse.”

“Teaching our underserved youth has been one of my passions,” she said.

Over the years, Zimmerman has worked in most of the San Diego Police Department’s patrol commands and on many investigative assignments.

“I’ve been involved in major event security planning,” she said. “When Maureen O’Connor was mayor (San Diego’s first woman mayor, from 1986 to 1992), I was her bodyguard.”

The third of four children, Zimmerman said her values were shaped by her parents, growing up in Beachwood. They were members of The Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights, where she was confirmed.

“We are a very proud family and a very close family,” she said. “We all went into public service. We’re all successful in our own way.”

Zimmerman’s older brother, Bud, is a cardiologist in Westchester County, N.Y. Her older sister, Renee, is a retired teacher in Durham, N.C.

“I think this is truly a success story and demonstrates what dedication and belief in something can do,” Renee Zimmerman said in a telephone interview from her home. “She really cares about the city of San Diego and the residents and people she works with.”

Chief outlines her goals

Zimmerman said she has high expectations for the police department and will be aggressive in implementing her priorities.

“We will instill a culture of excellence in our police department,” she said. “It starts with me as the chief of police, all the way through to our newest recruit and entire staff. We are going to demand it of ourselves, because our community deserves it.”

Zimmerman takes over a department that has been plagued by allegations of sexual misconduct and other wrongdoing involving a handful of officers.

“The very few who made the terrible decision to dishonor the profession, we’re not going to tolerate, and I’m not going to tolerate,” she said. “It takes years to build up a community trust, but it takes just moments to tear it down.”

Another challenge Zimmerman faces is police officer retention. About half of the department is eligible to retire within four years, including her.

Zimmerman will serve no more than four years as chief, as she signed up last year for a deferred retirement plan that requires her to leave city employment on March 1, 2018.

“That is why I’m so grateful to Mayor Faulconer and the city council that we didn’t do a national search (for a police chief),” she said. “I believe even if they spent the money and time to do a national search, that would take six months to a year, and in the end, I would be the chief of police.

“We need to hit the ground running. By having the experience of 31 years in the department, I have an understanding of what needs to be done, and I am so grateful we are already able to do that.”

ewittenberg@cjn.org

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