The trick might be to get into the mind of a burglar.
At the very least, this is a tactic Police Chief John Incontro adopts when he patrols San Marino in his unmarked Ford Explorer, helping to ensure his department is a visible presence in the small and affluent city and also keeping wary of situations ripe for crime.
San Marino joins a group of other Southern California cities that have all but eliminated violent crime while also becoming a hotbed of residential (and sometimes commercial) burglaries.
“The big problem here is, you have an affluent community smack dab in the middle of the West San Gabriel Valley,” Incontro explained while driving around town. “You have streets that are always busy. You might as well call Huntington Drive a freeway. You have four or five north-south arteries that connect to the 210.”
This helps make San Marino accessible to the groups of burglars — gang-affiliated or not — whose jobs are quite simply to spend all day driving around SoCal casing homes for break-ins or committing the break-ins themselves. Off the top of his head, Incontro recalled a handful of investigated burglaries in town whose suspects matched descriptions in burglaries committed in a similar time frame in nearby San Gabriel or Alhambra.
Hence, the added purpose of San Marino Police Department’s patrols.
Incontro, as he slowly made his way down various streets throughout the city, thought out loud as he checked out the neighborhood. He pointed out overgrown foliage that could make a decent hiding place. Sometimes there were driveway gates left open, which would allow prospective burglars to quickly shelter behind the home.
On the other side, plenty of homes had signs indicating there was a security system in place, and many of those had clearly visible cameras, motion sensor lights, or both. There were homes with metal grating around windows and solid doors to serve as deterrents.
And then, while driving down Las Flores Avenue, Incontro had to stop. There was a home with the garage door left open and a vehicle parked in the driveway — with its driver’s side door wide open. No one was around.
Incontro ultimately located the homeowners and spoke with them about protecting their home, but not before noticing numerous computers, gun cases and other valuables plainly visible from the garage. One of the owners said there were cameras throughout the home, but Incontro said that isn’t enough.
“Cameras are a part of it,” he said. “They’re good and they’re a deterrent, but they weren’t visible. They should be visible.”
At the Wednesday, July 12, city council meeting, Incontro reported that year-to-date, burglaries (residential, commercial and attempted) are up 67%, with 77 reported for 2017. Broken down, 68 of those were residential burglaries, of which 20 were unsuccessful attempts.
Having asked his detectives to analyze those burglaries, Incontro reported that 58% of them occurred at homes either without alarm systems or whose alarms were not activated. Three of the burglaries happened after homeowners had canceled response to the alarms, erroneously believing they were triggered in error.
Notably, 10 of those burglaries had no loss reported, presumably because of a triggered audible alarm. Among his other statistics, Incontro said 55 of the burglaries were at homes occupied by Asian families, which is well above the city demographic, but there isn’t any data to show it’s deliberate on the part of the burglars.
“I think it’s by coincidence,” he said during his patrol.
After the presentation, the city council agreed to three related funding proposals on the agenda: $39,550 of overtime funds to allow a team of two officers to work two four-hour shifts each week to focus on crime suppression, for a total of 192 additional hours throughout six months; $32,000 to hire two part-time cadets to handle minor reports and conduct house checks to free up patrol officers and detectives; and $2,800 to purchase and install Neighborhood Watch signs at each of the 66 entry points into San Marino.
The department also is making use of video cameras that can be affixed to light poles throughout town and will routinely move them around as crime trends dictate.
Incontro, who, before becoming SMPD chief, held a 35-year career with Los Angeles Police Department including 20 years of field work and being commanding officer of the Emergency Services Division, said one of the differences between the two jobs is that SMPD doesn’t have the ability to bring in caravans of extra officers to assist in larger investigations.
“I think the No. 1 difference is resources,” he said. “We can sometimes do a day where, for a couple of hours, we can go into South Pasadena and help out, or vice versa.”
Pasadena Police Department sometimes lends crime scene technicians to assist with SMPD investigations, but analysis can take time depending on the influx of other crimes being investigated.
“Although they do anything they can to help us, sometimes our priority is lower,” Incontro explained. “A burglary is less important than, say, a murder. I agree.”
Commander Richard Ward, whose tenure with SMPD reaches 22 years in October, said he believes the property crime trend has increased from when he joined the department. He added that he thinks various state propositions reducing sentences for some non-violent crime convicts have contributed to the increases.
“Obviously we’ve seen in the last couple of years that there’s been a spike,” he said. “We have had property crimes in the past, but I don’t feel like it was as prevalent as it is today.”
Ward said that departments all around have done a better job of publishing crime data and developments, which hopefully makes residents more aware. Nowadays, he added, the various facets of law enforcement are working together more effectively.
“You really have to network and talk to your surrounding agencies to identify trends and people,” he explained. “The burglars we have are still committing crimes in Pasadena, San Gabriel, South Pasadena, Temple City. They move around, so it’s important we share that information with other agencies.
“I do see a much bigger push to develop and nurture those relationships,” Ward added. “In order to be effective, you have to work with all the other agencies.”
SMPD, currently with 28 employees, is looking to fill its four vacancies and is in various stages of hiring three of those. This, combined with the recently funded measures and increased awareness among residents, will hopefully help to repel crime from the city, Incontro said.
“We really do have the support of the community and they want us to be successful,” Ward said. “That makes it easier to come to work every day.”
In addition to making use of cameras and alarm systems, Incontro encourages different ways to prevent loss as well. The chief recommends purchasing a safe from a specialty store (as opposed to a general chain store) and also bolting it to the ground. A secured safe can easily hold cash or valuables like jewelry, although a bank account or safety deposit box is a safer bet, he notes.
Residents should also be wary of where they leave things such as passports and bank or credit card statements, which contain identifying information that could be used for fraudulent purposes.
“Again, we don’t have violent crime,” he said. “We have property crime, and some parts of property crime are preventable.”