Activists criticize search process for new SDPD chief

SAN DIEGO — Activists sounded off at a San Diego City Council committee meeting Thursday against what they say is a lack of meaningful community involvement in the search process to find a new police chief.

San Diego Police Chief Shelly Zimmerman

City officials and a representative from the search firm assisting the city provided an update to the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee on their efforts to find a replacement for Chief Shelly Zimmerman, who is retiring in March.

City staff and Bob Murray & Associates held a half-dozen community workshops and created an online survey in recent months to learn about what qualities residents want to see in the city’s next top cop. Addressing concerns of racial profiling, increasing transparency in the department, prioritizing community engagement and cultural competency were among the top suggestions from some 2,300 respondents.

But critics contend that’s where the power of residents’ voices ends.

“This process that claims to have community input in the decision is smoke and mirrors,” said Christopher Wilson, associate director of Alliance San Diego, a community advocacy group.

The search firm next month will select six candidates using a set of “ideal candidate” qualifications gleaned from community input. Those candidates will then be interviewed by three panels of eight members each made up of representatives from community groups and city boards and commissions.

Next, a team of city management, human resources and law enforcement officials will interview the six candidates. Using input from the community panels, the city team will choose the finalists for the mayor’s consideration.

That means the real power in choosing the police chief rests with city staff and the mayor, the critics said.

“The community panels are being put at the kiddie table,” said Douglas Case, chairman of the Community Review Board on Police Practices. “We call for an adjustment to the process that will have the community’s voice heard throughout the process.”

Under the “strong mayor” city charter adopted in 2006, the power to choose a police chief rests with the mayor. That choice must be confirmed by a majority vote of the City Council.

“Anybody who wants to be heard, can be heard,” said committee member Lorie Zapf. “We don’t have an elected police chief.”

Residents who spoke also took issue with what they said is an inappropriate amount of secrecy in the search efforts. The initial pool of candidates names’ will not be made public and search panel members will be required to sign non-disclosure agreements. Regan Williams, senior vice president at Bob Murray, said this is to ensure candidates’ current employers do not find out that they’re looking for other work.

Ron Villa, the city’s deputy chief operating officer, said publicly releasing the names of the three finalists who are submitted to the mayor is “still up for consideration.”

The only guarantee is that the final candidate’s name will be released and he or she will be interviewed in open session by the City Council prior to its vote, which is expected to happen in February.