MONROVIA — Joseph Santoro was giving a haircut in his Monterey Park barbershop one evening 23 years ago when a customer suggested he join the local police reserves. He held a high school diploma, a certificate from barber college, and memories of police encounters that weren't quite pleasant.
He said yes.
He rose to become captain of the department, at the same time earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, a master's in public administration and a reputation for innovative management and dedication to the community.
On Monday, he was sworn in as Monrovia's police chief.
"I'm still learning names," said Santoro, 46, who was chosen after a seven-month search. City Manager James Starbird cited Santoro's record of being "very progressive, very community-oriented" as a factor in his selection to replace retired Chief William Tubbs.
His new position is a far cry from his turbulent youth. "As a kid I was always in trouble, and being a police officer was on the other side of my agenda," he said.
The son of an Italian immigrant, Santoro was 9 when his family moved to Southern California from Cleveland, Ohio. When he wasn't shining shoes for customers in his father's South San Gabriel barbershop, he cruised Alhambra's Valley Boulevard with the Counts and the Pagans, car clubs he belonged to as a teen-ager.
Although he never made it to jail, by the time he was 16, "I'd been shot, cut, beaten up." When he was 15, a juvenile officer came to his home, sat down with his family and said, "Joe, what're we going to do with you?" he remembers. But the sober session didn't impress him.
A violent turf fight did. On a summer trip to Cleveland he became entangled in a local brawl that involved about 30 youths, some using clubs and at least one brandishing a tree trunk. By the time it was over, "I was literally bruises and scabs from head to toe," he recalled. "At that time I said to myself, 'If you keep going this way, you're not going to live to be 18.' "
He studied hair styling and "at 17 I was a barber and thought my life was set." Soon he was operating his own business in Monterey Park.
He calls the Cleveland fight a turning point in his life. Another came as he was cutting the hair of an old Pagans buddy, Augustine Munoz, then a reserve officer with Monterey Park police. It was Munoz who suggested he join the police reserves.
Back in Monterey Park, Santoro leaves behind a controversy involving his unsuccessful bid to become police chief there. "You may not have been the political choice, but you were certainly the people's choice," former Monterey Park Chamber of Commerce President Marie Purvis wrote in a letter published in The Times last month.
More than 1,000 residents had signed a petition urging Santoro's selection, she said. But after a statewide search, the city picked Ken Hickman, a Los Angeles Police Department commander, to head the 117-member department in March. The city has 62,877 residents. Monrovia, a city of 33,900, has a 77-member police force.
"We have a new man with fresh ideas," Monterey Park Mayor Barry Hatch said Wednesday, defending the city's choice. "The man most qualified has the job."
"Joe was an extremely popular guy because he spent hundreds of hours with civic groups, and that's what the community likes," former Monterey Park Police Chief Jon Elder said.
Santoro was visible on organizing committees for events such as the city's first Cinco de Mayo celebration, serves on the board of the local boys and girls' club, and chairs the advisory board of the Asian-Pacific Family Center, a mental health counseling clinic in Rosemead.
"A good law enforcement administrator has to participate," he said. "I see (myself) as an advocate for social change for people who, if they don't get help, will wind up in the justice system."
Santoro was respected in the department as a "no-nonsense tough guy who was fair," said Elder, who retired in 1987.
"He was original," said Elder, describing him as his right-hand man. "Joe was the kind that, when a problem came up, he'd find new ways."
Santoro's best-known brainchild was an air surveillance program using an ultralight craft that the city launched in 1982. At $3 an hour for fuel, it was welcomed by the department, which couldn't afford a helicopter. Although the project was grounded after three years because of problems getting liability insurance, two of the three planes have been accepted for the Smithsonian Institution's aviation collection.
He also helped develop a canine program, a motorcycle patrol, a state-of-the-art computer crime network, as well as an Asian task force as the city's demographics evolved.
After hours, he lectures on Asian gangs at USC's Delinquency Control Institute and teaches a course on innovative management in criminal justice at Cal State Los Angeles. He plans to move to Monrovia and "get completely involved in the community."