Categorized | Rotto_Gary, San Diego County, USA

SDPD’s Chief Zimmerman and de- escalating conflicts

By Gary Rotto

Gary Rotto

Gary Rotto

SAN DIEGO — It’s been almost two weeks since the fatal shooting of a mentally unstable black man in El Cajon.  This shooting in particular bothered me because I always felt that we were different in San Diego County.  I worked for the San Diego City Council when the SDPD instituted the community policing model, one that other area departments slowly adopted. The constant work with the community helped to build important bridges and trust in the community, leading to a different and effect way to fight crime and violence.  So I felt that such a shooting could not happen here.  Then came the rush of events, the 19 second video in which Alfred Ogando was fatally shot by an El Cajon police officer.

My reaction was wonder about alternatives to the use of fatal force.  I wondered why a shot had to be fired when another officer was already in position and simultaneously fired a taser gun?

So I called San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman to talk about police training and the use of force. I was not looking for a comment on the situation in neighboring El Cajon, but rather sought to understand how SDPD trains and handles these types of situations – calls for service when a person is acting erratically and probably has some mental instability.

What has been on my mind is the concept of de-escalation of a tense situation.  This concept was also on Chief Zimmerman’s mind.  In response to my general question about violence avoidance, before I could mention the concept, the Chief mentioned de-escalation. “We get on the average 1.4 million calls into our communications center every single year. Since 2008, we have had a 125% increase in our mental health calls for service, “noted the Chief.  “There’s a lot of strategies and training that we have put in place … to de-escalate.”  This term became a recurring topic of our conversation.  “We do everything that we can to de-escalate a situation, to slow it down.”  It may not be an official policy of the department, but this is clearly a strategy that is top-of-mind for the leadership of the region’s largest municipal police department.   “Time and distance” are part of that de-escalation. She mentioned that this is the key for allowing resources – non lethal resources – to be deployed to the site of the call for service.  For example, SDPD has one of the largest canine units in the country.  With time, this tool can be deployed to a situation.

According to Chief Zimmerman force is used in less than one percent of the encounters with the public.  The actual percentage is 0.87% of encounters with the public involve force. (This does include routine encounters by the police with the public.)   “De-escalation is not just one class (in training). It is really, iterative, and a strategy infused in all of our training. In all of our scenarios we talk about de-escalation,” added Chief Zimmerman

“Our department has been trained on not just ‘procedural justice’ but it’s been trained on emotional intelligence.”  The Chief believes that there is not just one way to de-escalate but many ways. “What works on one individual may not work on another individual or in another situation. We infuse de-escalation training into all the different things that we do.

All new officers go through the Police Officers Standards and Training (POST), which is provided at the regional training institute. Chief Zimmerman noted that the local institute or academy provides more training hours than what is nationally required in the areas that she considers to be community oriented policing. The national standard for “Non Biased Based Policing” is 18 hours but participants at the San Diego academy receive 24 hours.  Similarly, “Cultural Diversity and Discrimination” training would last 16 hours but the local academy provides 46 hours on this topic.

“Once you are out of the academy, for the San Diego Police Department, all new officers are trained in crisis response.”  Five hundred and seventy officers are trained in crisis communications (out of 1100 sworn officers). This is in addition to the PERT (Psychiatric Emergency Response Team) officers additional training and teamed up with a PERT clinician.  Even when there is not a PERT clinician, it that those officers still have that additional training and have access to those additional resources and training.”  Advanced officers training every 18 months every officer must go through this which included the key concepts mentioned by the chief:  de-escalation, Non Biased Based Policing, Cultural Diversity and Discrimination; “Every summer, all of the supervisors has command training all about leadership and this topics that we are talking about.”

PERT teams continue to be a focus of many in the community.  PERT teams are a component of working with the many mentally ill living on our streets. As of now, PERT teams, which are funded by the County of San Diego, are available during 1st and 2nd watch.  The chief would love to have these teams available 7 days a week, but the funding has not been allocated to sufficiently to provide this increase in service throughout the City, much less the region.

It seems to me that there needs to be a differentiation in a call for service, identifying if someone is acting erratically or showing signs of mental instability. I asked “what can the community do to help provide the information to dispatch so that a more informed decision may be made about deploying resources from the beginning of a situation?  Some questions to consider when describing a situation to police dispatch are “Is the person an immediate threat to themselves or others?” and “Have they been acting erratically for several days or did this just occur?”

To close, I asked Chief Zimmerman, who is Jewish, about this period of reflection during the High Holy Days.  “You look at the meaning of Yom Kippur. I take a significant amount of time talking to officers and community members asking how we are doing,” she responded.   She drew a parallel to the concept of asking others for forgiveness of our sins, the idea of asking each person directly, of communicating. “So much can be done if we communicate with each other, every community member to every community member.  More often than not, we will find peace, good health, joy and happiness.” And she added, “Public safety is a shared responsibility.  Let us in San Diego set an example for the nation.”  May it be so in the year ahead.

Rotto is a freelance writer with an interest in government and politics.  He may be contacted via [email protected].



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One Response to “SDPD’s Chief Zimmerman and de- escalating conflicts”

  1. Michael K Rohde says:

    that’s great but there’s still a dead man in El Cajon, a man of color, with no weapon and he’s dead. that happens around 100 times a year and we are not immune. We lock up black males at the same rate as the rest of the country, 1 out of 3. San Diego has not solved the problem, it’s hidden behind rhetoric like “communicate with each other” and deescalation. That man is still dead and we still lock up 1 out of 3 black males. We’ve got problems , we just hide them better than most cities.


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