Interim Kansas City police chief speaks on violent crime and the community
A downpour pelted homicide investigators as they scrambled around 11th Street and Prospect Avenue, where a 25-year-old man was found fatally shot.
It was May 10, and David Zimmerman, a 34-year career veteran, had just been named acting police chief for Kansas City. He arrived at the scene and stood alongside detectives until he was drenched. Then he walked back to his car.
Although he had been to numerous homicide scenes before, the killing appeared to weigh heavily on Zimmerman’s shoulders.
“You see this violence and it’s just … it’s disheartening, and it’s disappointing,” said Zimmerman, 60, who was appointed interim police chief last month. “I know the women and men of this Police Department really do care about this city. They care about the people that live here.
“And it doesn’t matter who they are; it doesn’t matter what their lot in life is. We care about them.”
Many around the Police Department saw Zimmerman’s appointment last month as a safe choice. Zimmerman is described by those who know him as a low-profile, no-drama commander — an institution man who has the support of rank-and-file officers.
When Zimmerman’s name has appeared in the news, it hasn’t been for controversy — he most often has been quoted as commander of the budget unit.
Now tasked with keeping the department on track while city leaders conduct a national search for a new police chief, Zimmerman labeled his agenda “business as usual” when he was sworn in May 20 at police headquarters.
On Thursday, Zimmerman said that as he considered his plans to retire next year when he reaches 35 years of service, he never put himself forward as a permanent chief.
“If I wanted to be the chief, I knew that I had to commit to stick around for another five years,” he said. “Because I didn’t want to put the board or the department through another process in another two or three years, I decided earlier on that the best thing for the department and the best for the city would be to just let them pick somebody who is going to stay here.”
The Board of Police Commissioners is expected to pick a new chief by September. In the meantime, city leaders look to Zimmerman as a steady hand.
Unlike his predecessor as chief, Darryl Forté, Zimmerman doesn’t have an official Twitter account. And he doesn’t ride around the city on a motorcycle, as Forté often did.
Forté said he has had a “great relationship” with Zimmerman since they were both detectives in the vice unit in the early 1990s.
“He’s a low-profile guy who doesn’t seek or desire attention,” Forté said. “Chief Zimmerman is intelligent, witty and has an eye for detail that’s unmatched by anyone in the Police Department.”
Zimmerman’s tenure with the department has touched many areas, although he didn’t spend any time with the violent crimes division. His career includes a tour of duty on a Jamaican drug gang task force in the 1980s, a five-year stint as an undercover officer in the vice section, and a year leading a team that took down meth labs all over the metro area.
Something that few know about Zimmerman: He is Major League Baseball’s primary law enforcement contact in Kansas City, which kept him busy during the recent All-Star Game and World Series runs here.
In that job, Zimmerman serves as a liaison between MLB and law enforcement — a point of contact whenever anything unusual happens during a game. It’s a separate arrangement from the Royals’ hiring of off-duty Kansas City police officers to work security at games.
He has done that for 15 years, since the previous resident agent retired. The job requires him to be available at Kauffman Stadium for home games. He doesn’t normally travel with the team — but he did when the Royals went to the World Series.
Zimmerman’s leadership of the Police Department comes as the city is experiencing a spike in gun and street violence. The U.S. Department of Justice just named Kansas City one of 12 cities that will receive federal help and services as part of a national effort to combat violent crime.
Zimmerman recently announced that additional officers will be deployed to patrol in four small, high-crime areas of the city.
“It is a long game, and it is not something that we are going to fix overnight,” he said. “At least if it gets individuals who feel like they are safer because they see high visibility, I think that is a good thing.”
Leland Shurin, a member of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, said Zimmerman was an “easy pick.”
“He could just step right in and keep going,” Shurin said. “He’s very low-emotion, no-drama, experienced every place in the department that is needed to be able to handle this.”
Rising through the ranks
Zimmerman, a lifelong Kansas Citian, hadn’t planned to become a police officer.
He graduated from Oak Park High School in 1975 before attending the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Looking for a job, he answered an ad in The Kansas City Star and joined the Police Department in 1983.
“I was not one of these individuals who thought about being a police officer. I never thought that,” Zimmerman said. “I needed a job, and I’m looking through the paper, and I see a want ad saying that the Police Department is testing. I thought, ‘I could do that.’
“Where I am at right now is the pinnacle of my career. I never thought I would be here 35 years ago.”
First assigned to the East Patrol Division, Zimmerman became a detective in 1987 and served on the Jamaican Drug Task Force, dedicated to stopping a group of drug dealers who emerged as a powerful criminal force in the 1980s.
By 2000, Zimmerman held the rank of captain and commanded the Metro Methamphetamine Drug Task Force, which dismantled dozens of meth labs each year.
He spent time in the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit and a series of patrol division posts, among other assignments, before taking over the budget unit at a time when the city’s tight finances put pressure on the department’s coffers.
As deputy chief, Zimmerman headed the Patrol Bureau before being appointed interim chief in May.
Contributing to Zimmerman’s promotion through the ranks was his practice of seizing on opportunities for training and education: armed criminal investigation training with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and courses at the Reid Interrogation School, the Northwestern University Traffic Institute and the FBI National Academy.
Zimmerman earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration and a master’s in public affairs at Park University.
“The legacy is going forward that we will treat all of our members inside the department fair and justly, and as we go out into the community, that we treat everyone we come in contact with dignity and respect no matter who they are or what their lot in life is,” Zimmerman said in his neat, yet sparsely decorated office on the fourth floor of the police headquarters.
Yet among the few things that stand out in the office are several stuffed Clifford the Big Red Dogs that occupy a shelf behind Zimmerman’s desk.
“That’s an inside joke between my wife and I,” he said with a chuckle. “It dates back to an FBI conference we went to, and thanks to her I am known by most people outside of the department associated with the FBI academy as ‘the red dog.’ ”
A tale of two chiefs
Zimmerman doesn’t have hobbies, busying himself mostly with police business or time with family.
He is married to Raymore Police Chief Jan Zimmerman. They have two daughters and three grandchildren — the newest just 7 weeks old.
The two chiefs met 34 years ago, when they were both starting their careers as police officers at Kansas City’s old East Patrol station at 27th Street and Van Brunt Boulevard, Jan Zimmerman recalled during a phone interview.
“We were both pretty young. He was brand new,” she said. “He was a good police officer. He really had a nose for finding people driving under the influence.”
Since then, Jan Zimmerman has moved on to take charge of the Raymore Police Department, and she’s watched David Zimmerman rise through the ranks.
Jan Zimmerman keeps a photo in her wallet of a younger, bearded David Zimmerman — from his time as an undercover detective.
“I call him ‘Honest Abe’ Zimmerman. He’s that straight of an arrow.”
The hot seat
David Zimmerman’s appointment has gained approval from those who have worked with him for years and others who have only recently gotten to know him.
The Rev. John Modest Miles, senior pastor at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, said he has worked with Zimmerman on several community initiatives.
Morning Star sits just across the street from the Kansas City Police Department’s East Patrol building at 27th Street and Prospect Avenue.
“I think he’s great. He’s very community-minded,” Miles said. “He’s doing an outstanding job, just coming on. He has some big shoes to fill, but I think he is coming on real strong.”
Barry Mayer, a retired Kansas City police major and now vice president of the Kansas City Metropolitan Crime Commission, said he remembers when Zimmerman was a regular officer.
Mayer was a sergeant in the 1990s, he said, when Zimmerman came to his notice as a well-respected traffic accident investigator — serious, thorough and experienced.
Over the years, Mayer saw Zimmerman adopt a philosophy of command that put officers first.
“His thought process would be you guys (the commanders) work for these guys — the officers out on the street are the experts,” Mayer said. “He wants the whole command structure down through sergeants to provide them with support so they come home safe.”
Weeks after his appointment, Zimmerman made an impression on Kansas City Councilwoman Alissia Canady at a public meeting in Canady’s 5th District.
A resident asked Zimmerman a pointed question: Why did the Police Department seem to react so strongly to the killings of four white men along south Kansas City walking and biking trails, in contrast to the many homicides of black men in other parts of the city?
In May, the Police Department had highlighted “obvious similarities” in the four killings on the trail system: The victims were all white men, close in age, killed on or near the Blue River Trail and the Indian Creek Trail. Three were walking dogs. Some speculated a serial killer could be at work.
At the same time, the city was on its way to surpassing 60 homicides by June, on pace for a higher total than in recent years.
Zimmerman answered that the city’s larger problem with gun violence played out over a much wider area, with more complex root causes, and he described some of the strategies police were employing to stop it, including community engagement and intelligence gathering.
“He’s willing to answer the tough questions,” Canady said. “It’s not easy when somebody puts you in the hot seat.”