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Perimeters

It's Policing at the Best Community

October 18, 1995|PATT MORRISON

What a kerfuffle Ceasar Escobedo set off: He graduates from the LAPD academy and wham bam thank you chief, he quits the force that same afternoon, saying he'd rather wear the badge of the City of San Marino. Didn't someone tell him that LAPD rookies are supposed to be raring to protect and serve? Bring law and order to "shootin' Newton" division, maybe kick some felony butt in the 77th, where Mark Fuhrman shot off his mouth and a lot more, if you believe his Central Casting braggadocio?

Escobedo snubbed the department of Jack Webb and Chief Parker and Stacey Koon. The mayor wants a refund of Escobedo's $100,000 or maybe $60,000 Academy education from San Marino, population 13,000, median income maybe 10 times that, as lovely and peaceable as a town of collectible porcelain cottages.

The new Starbucks, daringly, stays open till 9:30; its double macchiato is the strongest drink for sale in the city limits. The town's onetime, big-time drug kingpin was a blond Bolivian plutocrat who bought a 19-room brick mansion and attracted comment only because his kids were such dunces in a school district that regularly pops the top on test scores statewide.

Among San Marino's 28 cops, every swiped car radio gets the fingerprint-kit treatment, and if there's so much as a home burglary on your beat while you're on duty, the other guys kid the hell out of you about it. San Marino can't be real police work, Officer Escobedo--can it?

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Before I drove to San Marino this week, I washed my car, as I would for a visit to my great-aunt Myrtle or any other institution of long and decorous standing.

Beverly Hills is welcome to the flash and brash of that awful word, "rich." Within San Marino's superbly kempt 3.75 square miles, money does not holler, it murmurs, in the way that big, brassy, swashbuckling fortunes become patinaed over time by good works and good taste. The town's two most famous residents are Blood-and-Guts Gen. George S. Patton and Kathy Fiscus, the 3-year-old girl who slipped down a San Marino well one day in 1949 and whose protracted, futile rescue invented the phenomenon of live, wall-to-wall TV coverage.

Congenitally Republican, San Marino was the John Birch Society's western headquarters for years, yet it had its political quiddities: It supported Proposition 13, then regularly, by huge margins, has voted itself school and police/fire assessments to keep up all those services Prop. 13 would have strangled. Having no apartments or condos, it struggled over low-income housing quotas, wondering at one point whether maid's quarters and caretaker cottages could count.

San Marino's biggest change is a population now about a third Asian, mostly Chinese. The newcomers had an unaccountable zest for felling trees and paving back yards, but a few ordinances mended that. Now the middle school's $4 fund-raising pancake breakfast puts a traditional Chinese breakfast on the menu, the weekly paper has an "East Asian" correspondent and the civic religion of volunteerism is finally making converts.

San Marino is as durably unself-conscious about its debutantes and generous charity work as it is about its politics and its prosperity-- vide the newspaper story about a CPR rescue: "The scene was typical. Children were playing gleefully as a San Marino nanny watched attentively nearby."

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Being an LA cop can be like working in a pinball machine: bouncing nonstop from hot call to hot call, spinning and whirling and lights and noise, and if you do it well, you win a free game--a chance to do it all over again.

San Marino police/fire chief Frank Wills, who left a big-city department, understands why Escobedo would apply. From a cadet in South Pasadena to the shock of the LAPD, "just running from call to call . . . the pressure to [dispose of] that call and move on to the next--you don't have the option of doing it any other way. Just psychologically, he could not and did not want to have a career doing that."

San Marino cops have the luxury of time, for code enforcement, crime prevention, knowing a neighborhood well enough to know what's amiss. "House watch" monitoring services that used to be free now cost a few bucks a day; former Mayor Rosemary Simmons has come back from vacation to a little note that officers found an open window, "backup was called and Officer So-and-So entered at 5:15 and locked your window." Crime is as low as it's been in 20 years, despite rare horrors--a father who torched his house and his family, two kids shot to death by gangs at a grad party, a DEA agent killed in a street gun battle.

Helicopters, motorcycles, full-time homicide duty--San Marino has none of those. And if Los Angeles wants to play tit for tat, San Marino loses officers to the LAPD over such things.

Ceasar Escobedo would prefer to work in that one place--small, prosperous, alike in class if not in race--to the other--vast, variegated, spent dry. Can community policing work the same if the communities are not?

For Wills as for Escobedo, San Marino is as close as it gets to a textbook model of community policing. If only they could afford to live there.

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