National Climate Leaves SMPD a Little More Wary

It’s happening with police officers all across the country, and it’s no different for those who wear the uniform of the San Marino Police Department. They look over their shoulder more frequently. Survey their surroundings more carefully when driving in the field. Approach a potentially violent situation with a heightened degree of caution.
It is understandable in the wake of the recent atrocities in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., where officers were ambushed by two shooters expressly because they were wearing law enforcement uniforms — and, in Dallas, because they were white. The killing of a combined eight officers and the wounding of 14, including bystanders, naturally sends a chill through anyone who wears a badge.
“We’re a little more vigilant, we’re a little more aware,” SMPD Chief John Incontro said Monday. “And we’re talking a bit more about tactics and officer safety and communication.”
As a result of the shootings, Incontro has sent out some advisory emails to members of his force, and he’s had a few face-to-face conversations. His message has been that most people are good, but every now and then you encounter someone driven by a hateful agenda, much like a terrorist.
But, in a wide-ranging conversation in his office, Incontro repeatedly returned to the same point: “In my 37 years in policing, this isn’t new. Whether a single officer is being killed because of his uniform or it’s multiple officers being killed because they were police officers, it’s happened before and it will continue.”
The chief expressed gratitude that he works in a community supportive of its police force, one that is not torn by protests and animosity toward cops. But San Marino is not an isolated town. Most of its property crime and nearly all of its violent crime are committed by people coming into the area to steal or individuals who are passing through. There’s certainly nothing to stop someone who is generally angry at cops to pull out a gun on a local street corner, wait for someone to call 911 (as occurred in Baton Rouge) and start shooting at the responding officers.
San Marino officers are required to wear body armor while on duty. In the immediate wake of the Dallas shootings, when it wasn’t immediately known if the attack was part of a broader campaign, they rode two to a car for a couple days, rather than patrolling singly.
Incontro said that training for dangerous situations or potential ambushes is ongoing, not something that was instituted following Dallas and Baton Rouge.
“We teach our officers to be safe, how to defuse situations, how to use tactics properly,” he said. “… We stress communication between officers. We talk about where you sit when you’re in a restaurant. If you’re going to sit [in a patrol car] and write a report or catch up on your activities, where you stop is important.”
In responding to a call, the chief added, SMPD officers have proven adept at communicating with one another and with other agencies, so that they can approach from multiple points on the compass, share information about suspicious people or vehicles, and have cover. “They’re very good about the safety aspect as they arrive and handle a call,” Incontro said.
Officers also receive training in dealing with the mentally ill and the autistic, so as to minimize the risk of an encounter unnecessarily escalating to violence. They are also repeatedly instructed in the department’s use-of-force policy.
At a time when nerves are on edge in law enforcement throughout the country, members of the San Marino Police Department are heartened by the expressions of support they have received since the cops were targeted early this month. The station has received cards of well wishes. Officers have heard encouraging words from people they’ve encountered in the field. Just the other day, Incontro and Commander Aaron Blondé were seated at Starbucks, having coffee and going over some work, when a woman approached. She said, “I just want to thank you for everything you do,” and gave them a gift card.
“This community is just unbelievable,” Incontro said. “The officers recognize that and they work hard. There are a lot of things the officers do that the folks don’t see. The contacts they make out in the field — [people] who are driving through or hanging out, and we know those are the folks who are probably involved with crime here. Those contacts cause those people to move on to someplace else. You don’t see that — it’s usually late at night — but it has a lot to do with keeping the crime in check.”

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