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When Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman named her assistant chiefs, she moved deserving police captains up in the ranks – and out of the communities that need them most.

Their promotions made a few of us nervous. These captains had courageously stepped up to make changes that gradually improved community-police relations. What would happen now that they had left?

Assistant Chiefs Todd Jarvis and Terry McManus were wonderful captains. Often they gave almost too much of themselves to serve their communities. In their new executive roles, they are positioned to push for practices that work in neighborhoods, and help Zimmerman make decisions that truly address community needs.

With her team of assistant chiefs, Zimmerman can navigate through department challenges to change an antiquated system of policing. She will need to admit that racism exists, and create strategies to stop it from thriving in neighborhoods and within her own department. It appears she has already started that effort with her community town hall meetings.

But I’ve never seen a chief ask the community who he or she should bring in or out of neighborhoods. It’s important to encourage this engagement, to remind residents these are decisions that will affect their lives and families. When leading officers leave, we often have to start all over again to build trusting relationships.

These ties are significant. I remember a distinct shift in community-police relations back in 2010, when tragedies hit close to the divisions, one after another. Over the course of a year, we lost six officers: Christopher Wilson, Jeremy Henwood, David Hall, Donna Williams with her daughter Briana, Christopher Blakely and Jason Prokop.

One officer stood to speak at a meeting in the wake of these blows: “Now we know the grief of the community, who too has lost so many valuable lives. This is incredibly hard; we are supposed to be tough.”

Residents and police found a kinship here. The relationship of trust grew stronger, and the community became safer.

We’ll face another transition soon: Southeastern Division Capt. Tony McElroy is retiring in June. McElroy has been an outstanding example of police leadership — he helped break down barriers between the department and the community, and still greets many people around the neighborhood with hugs.

This would be an ideal opportunity for Zimmerman to consult residents before picking McElroy’s successor. My suggestion? Lt. Debbie Farrar, who is currently serving as coordinator for the department’s psychiatric emergency response team. She has shown the same passion for community, connecting with all of us both on and off the job.

Moving Farrar back into our community would keep a familiar face in power, and encourage public trust in a reliable police presence. Zimmerman should certainly continue to take advantage of the leadership and perspective our local division heads can offer. But it’s this steady influence that will keep our neighborhoods strong and safe.

Tasha Williamson is co-founder of the San Diego Compassion Project, and a consultant for several community initiatives. Williamson’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

Catherine Green

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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