“When I graduated from the police academy in 1982, my goal wasn’t to be chief of police,” she said. “My goal was to do the very best job at whatever assignment I had.”
An Ohio native from Cleveland and an Ohio State University alum whose father was a World War II combat veteran and a trial attorney, Zimmerman first came to California to the Rose Bowl to see her beloved Buckeyes play. Afterward, she visited San Diego, which proved to be life changing.
“I came down to the zoo and immediately fell in love with the beauty of the city,” Zimmerman said. “I’d shoveled my last driveway.”
After breaking her parents’ hearts with the news, Zimmerman said she moved to San Diego “not knowing anyone. Didn’t have a job. Didn’t even have a place to stay.”
“And here I am 32 years later as the chief of police,” Zimmerman said adding “it’s a privilege to wear this uniform and badge.”
Once in San Diego, Zimmerman still thought she’d follow in her father’s footsteps and enroll in law school. But she ended up choosing a different path.
“I’d helped put myself through Ohio State and I thought I’d have to do the same with law school and I heard the Police Department was hiring,” she said noting of the force, “I loved it from day one.”
From the start, Zimmerman was impressed by the variety — and impact — of police work.
“You have an opportunity to make a positive difference in somebody’s life every single day,” she said. “You use every bit of knowledge you’ve ever learned, no matter how important or seemingly meaningless, because you come across such a variety of situations.”
“We don’t get the calls that say, ‘Come out and celebrate with us, our child made honor roll,’ ” Zimmerman said. “We get the calls that say, ‘Come out, please hurry, because someone just assaulted us, or just assaulted our child.’ When we get there, we have the opportunity to do what we can to make a positive difference — to make a terrible situation better.”
Hired in the wake of 10-year veteran police chief Bill Landsdowne’s resignation in the wake of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct within the department, Zimmerman said, “Those very few who’ve made the terrible decision to discredit this badge we’re not going to tolerate.”
Zimmerman said a police badge is not merely a piece of polished metal but a “symbol of service” standing for “integrity, honesty and professionalism.”
“We are going to instill a culture of excellence in our police department,” Zimmerman said. “We are going to demand it of ourselves, because our communities deserve it. We are recommitting every single second of every single day to the words that are written on the doors of our police cars, not just San Diego’s finest but America’s finest.’ ”
Zimmerman favors an independent audit to “see how we can do it (policing) better.”
San Diego’s new police chief also supports a proposal to outfit every patrol officer with a camera monitoring their activities
“We’re in the testing phased right now and it’s going well,” Zimmerman said pointing out she’s “completely in favor” of using any technology that can “make us more effective, provide the best service possible to our public.”
Once captain of SDPD’s Northern Division covering the coastline, Zimmerman credits the beach alcohol ban for being a “game changer” making beaches a more suitable environment for everyone, especially families.
“It smells like a beach now, you’re not dodging bottles and cans” said Zimmerman, a beach jogger. “Families have returned, People are enjoying themselves in an environment of safety and fun.”
Zimmerman pointed out policing the beachfront is of paramount concern “not only for the 1.3 million people who live here but for the many millions of visitors we have.”
Becoming San Diego police chief during a time of great transition, Zimmerman said the department is much different today than it will be when she leaves.
“Half of our department is eligible to retire within the next four years,” she pointed out. “And half of our working patrol officers have six or fewer years on our department. On some commands, 70 percent of offices have six or fewer years. That’s a lot of young officers. Not by age but by experience.”
The task of transforming a 21st century police force for the nation’s eighth largest city falls to Zimmerman.
Noting the role is ever-expanding, Zimmerman said law enforcement is no longer about just being a good police officer.
“We’re social workers,” she said. “We’re parents, mentors — anything you can think of.”
Noting San Diego has “one of the lowest staffed police departments of any major city,” Zimmerman’s convinced she and her colleagues are up to the task of creating the finest police force for “America’s finest city.”
“Imagine the possibility of all of us, the mayor, the City Council, the city attorney, the police department and our wonderful communities working together in a collaborative, cooperative relationship with one goal: To make San Diego the most beautiful city in the world and a place where people can raise their families and play in harmony and safety,” Zimmerman said.
“We can do this if we work together,” Zimmerman pledged. “And we need to because of our limited resources. We need to have all of these entitites working together as one. As the mayor said, ‘We are one San Diego.’ We are.”