By Jessica Sutherland / Daily Kos
Ever since the term “Fake News” entered the popular lexicon, almost everyone knows to check their news sources closely, and roll their eyes at Trump. But what’s a responsible citizen to do when “Fake News” and “alternative facts” originate with reliable, trusted sources?
Recently retired San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman should, in theory, have been one of those reliable, trusted sources, assuming you trust law enforcement. Unfortunately, a recent investigation by Voice of San Diego’s Jesse Marx reveals that the former chief manufactured crime statistics in an apparent effort to block expansion of the cannabis industry within America’s Finest City. Worse, her fake facts are now being used to justify and shape cannabis attitudes and policy in other municipalities.
This is how it begins.
At a September 2017 city council meeting, then-Chief Zimmerman came out swinging hard against multiple proposals to expand San Diego’s marijuana industry under California’s new recreational law. The addition of testing, growing, and manufacturing facilities had the potential to make the Southern California city one of the very first to have an entire supply chain within its boundaries. Not only can such vertical integration prove quite profitable, it also makes compliance much easier when all the new regulations roll out.
At the heated public meeting, then-Chief Zimmerman presented a report that cited extremely specific data about criminal activity at San Diego’s existing marijuana businesses—while simultaneously advocating for a citywide ban on them.
It made sense to listen to Zimmerman. If anyone would have solid crime stats that city leaders might rely on as they make crucial economic decisions, it would be the police chief, right?
(Chief Zimmerman) said the city’s legal marijuana dispensaries, which began operating less than three years ago, have generated 272 calls for service from police for burglaries, robberies, thefts, assaults and shootings.
It’s not at all uncommon for police to speak out against marijuana, but, as the Voice of San Diego notes, it’s quite rare for them to get so specific with the numbers. The consistent vagueness has benefited those advocating for marijuana access—and after Oklahoma’s vote last month, the not-so-evil weed is now legal in some form in 30 states and the District of Columbia.
But if all that vagueness helps marijuana advocates, specificity helps the opposition. So, despite San Diego city officials ultimately voting against Zimmerman’s prohibitive recommendations, the anti-cannabis folks quickly latched right onto the stats she provided.
Except the numbers weren’t real.
While Zimmerman’s claim made headlines among the prohibition lobby, it sparked skepticism among San Diego’s marijuana professionals and advocates, who track the dangers of their industry themselves, like anyone should.
Terrie Best, the San Diego chapter chair of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), told High Times that she and others attending the meeting were puzzled. She said San Diego’s cannabis community had been monitoring crime at dispensaries.
“We were all there with our mouths hanging open because we have been watching,” she said. “Of course we want to know if there is crime in our community, so we have a watch. I think everybody wondered what she meant because that wasn’t what we were finding.”
Best and ASA recruited Diane Goldstein, a retired Redondo Beach police lieutenant and current chair of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a law enforcement group devoted to ending the War on Drugs. Goldstein requested the data in March, when it became available under the California Public Records Act—and that’s where things got interesting. As Goldstein describes it, she found that Zimmerman’s report was “sloppy, unprofessional, and based on ideology.”
Voice of San Diego then conducted their own analysis of the data, and their findings aligned with Goldstein’s. Zimmerman’s falsification is blatant, wide in scope, but easily detected, if anyone bothered to look.
Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, dear reader, because this is gonna get weird.
Out of Zimmerman’s supposed 272 radio calls for “burglaries, robberies, thefts, assaults and shootings, just to name a few,” more than a quarter of them were for addresses near marijuana businesses, which often can be found in strip malls or office parks.
For instance, the medical marijuana dispensary Healing Center San Diego, or THCSD, is located inside a medical office building. On May 1, 2017, a woman fell in the parking lot and was having trouble breathing, possibly suffering a stroke. The address on the report belonged to a nearby pain management center. Yet the call was among those cited by Zimmerman as evidence that medical marijuana facilities attract crime.
Harbor Collective, another dispensary, sits on a street in Barrio Logan near the shipyards. On Feb. 27, 2017, police officers received a report of a fuel tank driver who was driving recklessly on the freeway and met the caller, another driver, on the same block as the dispensary to get more information. That call, too, was included in Zimmerman’s statistics.
Marx also cites “dozens of crank payphone calls to 911 operators made in the parking lot of complexes that house dispensaries and other businesses, dozens of false security alarms and even a couple requests to tow automobiles.”
Another chunk of reports don’t cite actual suite numbers, so it’s impossible to know if calls to shared addresses should be attributed to dispensaries. Zimmerman counted ‘em anyway.
All in all, out of the 272 radio calls Zimmerman declared were proof of the “enormous” public safety threats that legalized cannabis would bring, just a fifth were directly traceable to a dispensary. Some of the crimes, undeniably, were scary stuff. A security guard had to break up a big fight, for instance, and Marx cites the armed robbery of another dispensary employee.
But the rest?
They include things like graffiti and vandalism complaints, water leaks and men being refused service because they couldn’t bring a dog inside the shop.
Zimmerman also cited shootings when she spoke before San Diego’s City Council; the Voice analysis of the data revealed just three gun-involved incidents.
In one instance, a Harbor Collective employee thought a bullet had been responsible for a broken window, but it was a rock. In another instance, a security guard accidentally fired a gun while cleaning it. And in the third instance, a security guard appears to have fired at a group of burglars in the middle of the night.
That last one is terrible and scary. The other two? Not so much, though the cleaning incident is a good time as any to mention that gun safety is essential.
It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, if you consider Zimmerman’s past.
Zimmerman, who joined the force straight out of college, back in 1982, has long been a vocal critic of cannabis legalization. In her earliest years on the force, she went undercover as a high school student, and proudly boasts that she got 73 teenagers arrested on drug charges. She also once claimed recreational legalization was to blame for new recruits failing drug tests and getting booted from the academy while SDPD was in a hiring crisis. Under Zimmerman’s watch, machines for roadside drugged driving tests were also purchased and implemented at DUI checkpoints, and she cited vague “drugged driving” numbers in Denver as justification.
Then, the day after the City Council dismissed her fake report, she contrasted her work as a real-life 21 Jump Street star against 2017’s reality.
— Shelley Zimmerman (@ChiefZimmerman) September 12, 2017
Thing is, if you were to search for Zimmerman’s name right now, you’d find the Voice investigation, and a few other pot blogs that have picked up the story, but the rest of the results would be flowery fodder about Zimmerman’s retirement back in February, sprinkled in with all of her recent celebrity appearances. Dig a little deeper, or with a word like “cannabis,” and Zimmerman’s misleading report makes a solid showing. Who wouldn’t cite statistics from a fairly respected, history-making police chief, who shattered barriers and led her city to the FBI’s lowest murder rate—especially when those stats are found in such papers as The Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune? Her fake stats totally pass the Fake News sniff test.
But now her Fake News is spreading.
Voice of San Diego notes that Zimmerman’s false report surfaced in nearby Oceanside, where Police Chief Frank McCoy cited it in a June memo for his own City Council, in addition to vague warnings from Colorado in February. The Council ultimately voted to ban retail shops. Zimmerman’s falsified stats have also shown up in debates in Imperial Beach, another seaside town that shows strong affinity for marijuana.
Almost six months into her retirement, Zimmerman appears to show no intention of recanting.
Zimmerman declined an interview. “I’m really not interested in talking to you,” she said when reached by phone, and hung up.
She seems confident that this story will go nowhere, while her fake report continues to spread.
Here’s hoping she’s wrong.