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San Diego’s crime rate is at its lowest in nearly half a century and we now rank among the top five safest cities in the United States. Much of the credit for this incredible success comes from the police department’s tremendous partnership with the community.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I read voiceofsandiego.org’s bizarre conclusion that the San Diego Police Department had “moved away” from community policing. VOSD seems to come to this faulty conclusion based in large part on the San Diego Police Department’s reduced participation in a problem-oriented policing conference and the fact that it has not submitted as many projects for a Herman Goldstein award as in previous years.
This conclusion is fundamentally flawed and does not reflect reality. There are many ways to measure a police department’s success, but no matter what metric you choose to use, the San Diego Police Department is tremendously effective and successful even with its limited resources. Much of this success goes to the incredible partnership that has been forged with our neighborhood communities.
Today, we have an entire police force committed to solving issues and working with our communities. Community policing fifteen years ago may have been a new concept for our police department. We embraced that concept and trained our entire police force and today it is not a concept but an institutionalized part of the work we do within our communities. Because it is now routine, the great work the officers do every day is often overlooked. Community participation has also evolved.
As an example, fifteen years ago I remember painting over graffiti on the fences of community members. Almost everyone painting the fences was a police officer. Today, there are hundreds of community members who take pride in their community and remove graffiti from their own fences. Just last month, I attended a graffiti paint-out organized by community members who removed more than 1000 graffiti tags. The community members I spoke with told me they appreciated the police stopping by to offer support, but they agree it was wonderful to see the majority of the people helping were community members.
Members of our department at all ranks routinely attend more than 170 community meetings each month. This is in addition to the many community events attended each weekend. The accessibility of our department has never been greater because the outreach today takes place throughout our entire city. No area goes untouched.
Our top priority will always be responding to emergencies. Because we are at our lowest staffing levels in more than a decade, we have made our patrol staffing a priority. However, because of our diminished resources we actually rely more and not less on our community policing partnerships. This is evident with our robust Neighborhood Watch Program and Volunteer Program, which is more than 700 strong. Last year community members volunteered more than 150,000 hours at their police department, which allowed the officers more time to address community problems.
Therefore, should the measurement of the success of our community policing philosophy be in how many awards we receive or should it be measured in some other way? Fifteen years ago we had a fractured relationship and distrust within some of our communities. Today, the officers are a welcomed part of every community.
This was never more evident with the tragic death of Officer Christopher Wilson. It was the Southeastern community, a community that 15 years ago was one of those areas that had a fractured relationship and distrust with its police department, that organized a candlelight vigil one thousand strong to honor Officer Wilson. Community member after community member told stories about how Officer Wilson had helped them solve their community issues — stories that the public never heard because they are now considered routine. And at the end of the day, it is this type of community support that we would not trade for all the awards in the world.
Shelley Zimmerman is an assistant police chief of neighborhood policing in the city of San Diego.