Q&A: A top cop who breaks down barriers

Name: Susan Manheimer

Age: 59

City: Pacifica

Position: San Mateo chief of police


Susan Manheimer

You’ve been a police officer for 31 years and chief of the San Mateo Police Department since 2000. What’s more unusual: being a Jewish police chief or being a female police chief?

Susan Manheimer: I think my Jewish background really influenced my decision to go into a life of service and helping others, and my being a female kept me really strong and competent in my field because there were such double standards for a good part of my career. I had to really prove my merit. And then being the fourth female police chief in the state of California, I had to prove I could do this job. When you’re different, when you’re looked at skeptically, it makes you sharpen your sword. I talk to females a lot as they enter this profession and I say, “Use that.”

There is a lot of concern about racial bias and use of force in policing. How do you address these issues in San Mateo, with its diverse population of nearly 100,000?

I’m on the NAACP executive board in San Mateo. We have regular dialogue and build relationships early within our community so when issues do arise — and they do arise, make no mistake about it — we are proactive and have each other’s cellphone numbers so we can open the lines of communication. For instance, we’ve had several officer-involved shootings. We came out immediately with the information, all that we knew. And we had tremendous support from the community because of those lines of communication and the commitment to that trust and to service.

No matter how close your relationship is with the communities that you serve, certainly the headlines do influence people, whether they’re national or local. There’s a broad brush that will influence people’s perceptions. We very deliberately reached out and made ourselves accountable to the community. It’s about providing service at the highest level, with that deep commitment to helping.

A number of amateur videos have been released showing police actions that many find disturbing. How has that development influenced the way police work?

The proliferation of video is ubiquitous, from the officer’s side as well as from the general public; everyone has a cellphone to capture moments nowadays. The unfortunate part is, police have to respond with the level of force necessary to overcome the violence and resistance of the [suspect]. So oftentimes, taken just in the context of the cellphone video, it’s very disturbing to watch. You can have misunderstanding and misperception any day in any incident. That’s why it’s important that we explain what we do and that we employ de-escalation and other tactics and less lethal tools like Tasers. All of these are really critical to doing what every officer wants to do: avoiding lethal force. I think that body cameras [for police] are a good tool in general, but they’re still unsettled case law and I’m watching before we jump in.

How did your Jewish background influence your career?

I was raised in New York City in a very Jewish area, and I’ve always been a practicing Jew who is very proud of the strong Jewish tradition of advocating for civil rights, social equity and serving others. I belong to Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo; both of my children were bar and bat mitzvahed. My son’s a Marine, my daughter was a district attorney. My family [growing up] marched in the civil rights marches, and I think all of that really called us to service. My dad was a city councilman in New York, and he always had a lot of officers to the house. I saw them as heroes. Who else was willing to put on a gun belt and kiss their family goodbye and put their life on the line for a community?

You must get calls at all hours of the day and night.

Thanksgiving weekend we had a violent domestic homicide. We worked throughout that weekend. Most of my command staff aren’t even paid for coming into work extra hours, and they were all there all weekend to catch the suspect, who we ultimately caught Monday night. We worked all weekend in pursuit of justice.

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Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.