Edgy Interview: Shelley Zimmerman
When you drop by a neighborhood party you don’t expect to meet Superwoman. But then I met San Diego’s former Chief of Police Shelley Zimmerman. After hearing her fascinating stories and takes on everything from politics to bean dip to education to police work, I just had to get her to sit for an Edgy Interview. Shelley’s been a dedicated leader in law enforcement. She joined the force in 1982, making a significant impact with her strong commitment to community safety. Zimmerman, known for her innovative approaches, was Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s first hire and the department’s first female chief. Shelley continues to write prolifically on many civic topics. I think you’ll see why she was a beloved cop and chief and why San Diego was blessed to have her at the helm.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I love animals, so I considered being a veterinarian.
Tell us about the point in your life when you realized your calling was law enforcement?
My father was a trial attorney and I always thought I would go to law school. When I moved to San Diego after college, I still thought I would go to law school. I mostly put myself through college and I knew I would need a job to pay for law school here in San Diego. I joined the San Diego Police Department, to help me pay for law school. But from day one, I fell in love with being a San Diego Police Officer and I never did go to law school! 35 years later, I retired as the Chief of Police. There are numerous reasons why I loved being a San Diego Police Officer. Here is just one of them: multiple times a day, you will have the opportunity and privilege to help someone and usually at their worst possible moment.
If you could go back in time, which former President would you like to chat with and what’s the topic.
I would very much appreciate talking with President Lincoln about leadership and how he led during his time in office. Inscribed on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial are his Gettysburg Address and second inaugural speech. Every time I get to Washington, DC, I always take the time to visit the Lincoln Memorial and ponder the meaning of the inscriptions. In Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, it was not clear how the war would end. This address was narrowly focused, emphasizing remembering and honoring those who died and what they were fighting for. In his second inaugural address, the nation was still at war, but Lincoln saw the future as one where we had to take care of those hurt by the war, and the country must unite and act in the spirit of togetherness and not spite. To have the opportunity to discuss all of this and so much more would be amazing.
What is your proudest accomplishment while serving as San Diego’s Police Chief?
To accomplish many things, you often will need help, lots of it. I certainly had help and stood on the shoulders of giants. Throughout my career, I had the privilege of helping mentor many officers and professional staff. My proudest accomplishment was assisting others to succeed in obtaining their goals.
If you could repeal one law, which would it be and why?
I can think of many laws that need to be repealed but if I had to pick one right now, it would be California’s Proposition 47. I opposed Proposition 47 from the beginning because it was seriously flawed. I called it then and I still call it now, a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card. Reducing penalties without requiring accountability does not work for drug and theft offenses, which Proposition 47 championed, nor will it work for more serious crimes. When people are victimized by crimes, they deserve to know that the offenders will be held accountable. Every time the system fails to provide consequences for illegal activities, people lose faith in the rule of law and its ability to protect them from crime.
What was your favorite musical genre as a teenager and what are you listening to now?
Cleveland is where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is located. I grew up in Cleveland so of course I listened to a lot of rock music. I still listen to a lot of rock, but I also listen to many other genres such as jazz, classical, R&B, pop and even some metal, and country.
First concert you attended and how did it make you feel?
I suppose my first concert was the one I played in, and it felt great. To see people enjoying the music you are playing was magical. As a young child, I started playing musical instruments and continue to this day. I played in the marching band and orchestra in high school. I also played in the pep band at The Ohio State. (I wasn’t good enough for the marching band) I play drums, clarinet, piano, and guitar. However, in full disclosure, I do not play any of them well.
Have you recently watched any shows that resonated with you?
I didn’t watch it at the time it aired, but I recently finished watching the series The Wire. Having worked narcotics and other detective assignments in my career, I found there were many accurate depictions. No matter what assignment I had, I always believed we must follow the facts and clues to its logical conclusion, no matter where they might lead. There is a line in The Wire that gets to the heart of this, “You follow the drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But if you start to follow the money you don’t know where that will take you.”
Did you (or do you now) have a sports hero and what’s special about them?
I absolutely love sports. I wouldn’t say I have a sports hero, but I have several players and sports personalities that I admire. Growing up in Cleveland and then attending The Ohio State University, I followed the Browns, Cavs, Guardians (Indians), Buckeyes and now in San Diego our Padres, Aztecs, and Gulls. Our Wave FC is also fun to watch. When the Chargers played in San Diego, I followed them too.
I have so many great sports moments. Let me mention one. I had the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at a Padres game. I was a bit nervous and wanted some advice, so I called Trevor Hoffman. Who else would I call but the Padres Hall of Famer and he gave me some great advice – aim high at the catcher’s head because there is a tendency to aim low since you are on a mound. This was spot on advice, and I am proud to say, I threw from the rubber, didn’t bounce the ball and I will call my pitch a strike. I was then invited by Mark Grant and Dick Enberg into their broadcast booth. I think they were impressed with my sports knowledge, and it was quite special reminiscing with Dick about him calling two Browns games — The Drive and The Fumble — that are part of the agony of Cleveland sports.
You’re a cyclist. Have you ever competed in cycling and if so, tell us a great story about that?
I love to ride my bicycle. I have never competed in just a cycling race, but I have competed in several triathlons, which includes a cycling segment. I am a proud mid-packer in my age division. I think maybe once or twice I had a podium finish, but that was likely because there were only three in my age category. I say it still counts.
There is a story I would like to share about riding my bicycle from San Francisco to San Diego to support the Challenged Athletes Foundation. The first year I did this, I had never even driven my car over Big Sur, and now I would ride my bicycle. It would also be my longest ride at over 110 miles, and the most I climbed, over 7,000 feet. Although I had trained, I was still quite apprehensive about this day’s difficult ride. About halfway riding through the hills of Big Sur, I started to get quite tired, and the doubt started in my head: could I do this? While climbing another hill, I saw two challenged athletes ahead of me. I saw they were both riding on cycling prosthetics as I approached them. One had a prosthetic for his right leg, and the other a prosthetic for his left leg. At that moment, I realized I had nothing to feel tired about. I continued to ride with these fantastic, challenged athletes and was inspired by them every pedal stroke. Because of them, I finished the ride that day with an incredible sense of accomplishment.
Which reality TV show would you most like to compete on and why?
Having worked undercover during my career, I would like to be on Survivor. I think I could put those skills to good use to outwit, outplay, and outlast.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve received and who gave it to you?
It’s not just professional advice but the best advice I received for any situation, and I got it from my mom. “Do your best! And if you didn’t do your best, why not? Figure out what held you back from doing your best, fix it, and do better next time.”
Take us through your perfect day in San Diego.
Wake up to see a beautiful sunrise. Take a bike ride on the coast, with the wind at my back. Spend time with family and friends, help someone, take in a sporting event, and watch a beautiful sunset.
What would you change about yourself?
To stop being so hard on myself. I am my own non-stop biggest critic.
What advice do you have for young people considering law enforcement as a career?
Being a police officer is an honorable and noble profession. If I had to do it all over again, would I be a police officer? Without any hesitation, that answer is YES! Being a police officer is not just a job but a calling. It is a sacred commitment to protect society and often the most vulnerable and humblest among us. When you are a police officer, you are part of something much bigger than just yourself. The policing profession needs good people, so you must live a life that allows you to pass a background check. You should also consider becoming a police cadet to get a sense of what being a police officer will entail. Go on a ride along with a police officer and see for yourself why being a police officer is a fantastic career. If I may add, the San Diego Police Department is hiring, so if anyone is reading this and considering a career as a police officer, apply!