“Aim high” was the advice given to San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman. But it wasn’t about her career. It came from superstar pitcher Trevor Hoffman! The chief called Trevor prior to what she calls the most fun event of her tenure as police chief—throwing out the first pitch at a Padres game!
As a longtime athlete and sports fan—and diehard Ohio State supporter—Shelley did not want to botch this up. Trevor told her the tendency for people unfamiliar with throwing a pitch is to throw down. Of course, his advice was right on, and the rest is history. “I’m proud to say that I threw from the rubber, threw from the mound, and it was a strike. I didn’t bounce it, and everything was great,” she remembered with a huge smile.
When I sat down with the chief to talk about her four years leading the San Diego Police Department, retirement in March, and her life in Scripps Ranch, she was her usual enthusiastic, positive self. We have known each other for years through community activities, so my inclination was to call her Shelley, which was fine with her. After our chat, I realized I had spoken to one of the top—and most successful—law enforcement leaders in the country, yet to those in Scripps Ranch, she’s just Shelley.
The chief proudly shares the fact that she has been a Scripps Ranch resident for more than 25 years. She moved to Scripps Ranch because she says it reminded her of the suburb outside Cleveland where she grew up. You know your neighbors, and everybody looks out for each other. It’s the “niceness” of everyone.
She said of the 12 houses in her cul-de-sac, eight of the original owners remain, and her other neighbors have been there for years. They have watched her rise through the ranks of the department. Not too long ago a neighbor left a note on her door that said, “Please come home. We only see you on TV or in the newspaper…we never see you since you’ve been chief of police. When are you coming home?”
One story she tells is about the 2003 Cedar Fire, when her neighborhood was evacuated. Shelley worked several days straight and watched the fire approach her home. She was prepared to learn that her house was gone. “I remember it was about 3 in the morning and there was a little lull and I jumped in my car and went to check it out. I drove up the street thinking the worst…and I’m looking around going, ‘Wow…we’re here.’”
She started calling neighbors at that early hour saying, “I have some great news to tell you. So…we’ve been through a lot together.” She said as a police officer, too often she delivers bad news. She was thrilled to be able to personally tell her neighbors that their homes were saved.
When asked the first word that comes to mind when she hears the words “Scripps Ranch,” she quickly answers “friends.” She loves so much about our community, including how you run into people you know everywhere. A quick trip to Starbucks lasts 20 minutes because she sees so many Scripps Ranch friends.
She also loves Miramar Lake, which she says she must have run around more than a thousand times, and Symphony in the Park concerts. She has even played the drums with The Heroes, of whom she admits she is one of their biggest groupies.
She decided to move from her hometown to San Diego after the 1980 Rose Bowl. She, her boyfriend, and a few friends came out to see her beloved Ohio State take on the University of Southern California. While in the area, she wanted to visit the San Diego Zoo because she used to see commercials about this legendary place. She went to the zoo and the beaches and said she made up her mind right then, “I had shoveled my last driveway.” So while Ohio State lost the Rose Bowl by one point—something she says she’s still not quite over!—San Diego won the heart of this East Coast gal!
She went back to Ohio State, graduated, and flew out to San Diego with $200 in her pocket, one suitcase, and her guitar. She didn’t know anyone, didn’t have a job, and didn’t have a place to stay. However, she emphasizes, “As your police chief, I plan much better now!”
Her original idea was to go to law school in San Diego and become a lawyer, like her dad, a World War II Army vet. She saw that the police department was hiring and thought it would be a great way to earn money for law school. She entered the academy in October 1982 and her plans changed. “I fell in love with being a San Diego police officer.”
Shelley says there are many reasons she enjoys being an officer, but there are two main ones: every day you have an opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of community members, and usually at the worst possible times; and you use all the knowledge you have ever learned, no matter how important or seemingly meaningless, because you are going to come across such a wide variety of situations.
Shelley enrolled in the city’s early retirement program, knows as Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), about a year prior to being named police chief. One of the requirements of the program is that, once you join, you must retire within five years. So Shelley must retire in March. She said she would not be stepping down if she was not in the DROP program.
She describes her retirement as “bittersweet,” because after 35 years as a police officer, she still loves her job. Under her leadership, crime has decreased and San Diego is one of the safest big cities—if not the safest—in the country.
“It’s been an absolute honor and privilege to wear the uniform and the badge of the San Diego Police Department…my dad, even though he’s been gone many years now, was part of the Greatest Generation…Our country is much different because of him and his bravery and others like him in our military. I’d like to think that I get to do something in my small corner of the world, called San Diego, to make it a better place. And that’s why I come to work every single day…This has been a dream come true and I am grateful every day to have this opportunity.”
After years of 90-hour work weeks and odd schedules—“Sometimes I’m coming home at 4 in the morning and sometimes I’m leaving at 4 in the morning”—she’s ready to hit the pause button. On day one of retirement, Shelley said she may sleep in…from her usual 4:45 until 5 am! Then she would like to spend quality time with her close-knit family. She said she loves visiting her mother and three siblings, who all live on the East Coast.
Her name has been mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor or City Council. While she says she hasn’t decided her next move, she plans to stay in San Diego and she’s not done giving back. Throughout our conversation, it was clear that her idea of “aiming high” was serving America’s Finest City.
Shelley will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the San Diego Police Foundation’s 2018 Women in Blue at a special luncheon this month. She is flattered by the honor, but it also makes her uncomfortable “because I know that it’s not me. It is all of us that have worked together to achieve the results together.” This is a theme she repeated frequently.
In addition to SDPD staff and city officials, Shelley stresses the importance of working with residents to fight crime. She gives accolades to the Scripps Ranch Civic Association Neighborhood Watch (SRCANW) program as doing an “amazing job.” Scripps Ranch is often used as a model for other communities that want to start a NW program.
If you would like to attend the luncheon on Thursday, Feb. 15, which will honor our hometown chief and friend, call 619-2332-2130 or visit http://sdpolicefoundation.org/events/women-in-blue.
Due to space constraints, we could not share all of my interview in the Newsletter. However, you can see the entire chat on video at www.scrippsranch.org/chief. We thank our SRCA videographer, Jerry Yang, a Scripps Ranch High School junior, for his work on this project.
Gloria Tran, Editor