by Mitch Lehman
What does a three-decade, LAPD lifer have in common with a small town like San Marino? Plenty.
“I am very familiar with the community,” said John Incontro, who in eleven days will be sworn in as the 14th police chief in the city’s history, replacing the retiring Tim Harrigan.
“I have lived in Pasadena and the county area of San Gabriel, my kids played soccer at the high school, we have shopped in this town and went to Lacy Park on the 4th of July, so I have pretty much been around San Marino all of my adult life.”
Incontro’s highest qualification?
“I used to get my hair cut by Kenny the barber,” he said.
End of the hunt.
Incontro, most recently a captain, was selected after a statewide recruitment effort that involved applicants with a variety of law enforcement experience. The selection process included interviews before panels of community members, law enforcement professionals and city staff – as well as an extensive background investigation.
“I am very excited and am looking forward to experiencing new things,” Incontro said from his Whittier home. “I like a challenge and I like to contribute.”
With recent incidents rocking local communities – including two at South Pasadena High School –≠ Incontro told The Tribune that protecting local campuses is “a high priority.”
“Schools need security, and our officers need to be at the schools,” he said. “We take school violence very seriously. [Police Chief] Art Miller at South Pasadena is a very good friend of mine. We’ve known each other since we were nineteen. I will reach out to Superintendent Alex Cherniss to see what we have and what we need and what we can do to work together. We have some school liaison officers and we are going to work on that as well. We will be meeting with every school and we will do all we can to make the school safe and make the students feel safe. We’ll be working on that right away; it’s a top priority for us. We really want to mesh with each school’s individual safety plan.”
Incontro was born in Texas and grew up in the Los Feliz area with his mother, sister and step-father. His career began over 35 years ago with the Los Angeles Police Department where he accumulated substantial experience in patrol operations, administrative duties, officer and community training and special operations. Incontro was selected to be the acting director of the Department of General Services, Security Services Division following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
During the last decade, the Los Angeles Marshall High School graduate has served as a captain and held command assignments leading the LAPD’s training division and the elite Metropolitan Divisions, as well as the bomb squad, Haz-Mat operation and bomb detection K-9 units.
“I’ve done a little bit of everything from South Los Angeles to Hollywood to downtown LA,” he said.
Incontro has also dabbled in dignitary protection, SWAT, ran a small gang unit in Watts and worked investigation in Rampart. He served three years as an assistant to then-Chief Bernard Parks, where he evaluated use-of-force issues before moving along to Hollenbeck on another gang unit. It was there Incontro experienced a life-changing transformation when a friend and co-worker was shot on New Year’s Eve 1996 while on gang maneuvers. Officer Steve Gajda died on January 1 – his wife’s birthday.
“It has an effect on you when something like this happens,” said Incontro, his voice cracking. “It reinforces how valuable it is to serve and support the people you work with. That incident reinforced the importance of working with the community you serve.”
Incontro was recently pondering a 2016 retirement and researching the next chapter of his life when he happened upon San Marino’s online listing.
“I saw the ad and thought ‘that sounds like a great opportunity to work at a great place,’” Incontro said. “I’m still young, and I want to help people and serve. I’ll give it a shot.”
Shoot – and score.
“I started as a cadet in Glendale, so I know what it’s like to work with a small agency,” the chief continued. “It’s very exciting. My longevity depends on my performance and the performance of my officers and I think this is both a very unique and great opportunity for me.”
Incontro is single with two sons; Sean, 26, and Robert, who is 23.
He also lived in Sierra Madre for nine years, where he worked closely with their police department and former Chief Marilyn Diaz. His son is still a volunteer firefighter in that town.
“I understand the importance of a small town and the character of this area,” Incontro added.
While working for the LAPD, Incontro obtained his Bachelor of Science degree from Cal State Los Angeles and a Master of Science degree in Leadership and Management from the University of La Verne. He also completed the Police Executive Research Forum’s senior management institute for police, the FBI’s national academy, the Sherman Block supervisory leadership institute and the LAPD’s leadership program. He noted among his qualifications a strong relationship with several neighboring police chiefs as well as Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who was sworn in this past Monday.
His fondest department memories involve two stints on the LAPD’s Mounted Police Division, but his new assignment will be a horse of a different color.
“The challenge for San Marino is to manage our resources and our budget while providing the best services possible,” said Incontro. “Also, what are the priorities set by the city council? We as a police department are the face of city government and we have to work together. It’s a great crew here. The city family I have met so far is wonderful.”
With Lt. Paula Byrd retiring alongside Harrigan, Incontro will lead a force that is losing almost seventy years of experience on one day.
“I’ve done quite a lot of research on this town, read six months worth of Tribunes and met with the police officers association,” the new chief said. “I talked to lieutenants and met with people who live in the town. I’ve talked to chiefs from nearby departments and they all tell me what a great place this is. I have an excellent opportunity to work with people who are committed to outstanding police service and who are enthusiastic about making this organization one of the premier police service providers in the San Gabriel Valley.”