By Mitch Lehman
EDITOR OF THE TRIBUNE
“We are going off the beaten path,” says San Marino Police Dept. Operations Commander Aaron Blondé, and in San Marino terms, that means an area in the southeastern quadrant of the city, just north of San Gabriel Country Club.
I have joined Commander Blondé for a “ride along,” an outreach effort by the SMPD to familiarize the local media with patrol tactics and efforts to tackle a substantial increase in home burglaries, which have jumped by more than 60% over a year ago.
It is 1:00 p.m. on a hot, humid, sleepy summer afternoon and Mayor Richard Sun is a welcome last-minute addition to the foray. Blondé is an overflowing fountain of information, pointing out open garage doors, high shrubs and other impediments to good policing as he drives through the abandoned neighborhood.
“Burglars are looking for an area that is quiet,” Blondé says. “When you see plants and trees that are overgrown and fences that create a barrier, that’s not good. If we can’t see the front of the house, we can’t tell what is going on and a burglar will be much more likely to enter that one.”
Blondé stops quickly to point out the aesthetic differences between two homes that happen to be right next to one another. The residence to the east is neat and well-trimmed with windows that are easily visible from the street. The dwelling to the west has a high, ungroomed hedge and a trellis fence that obscures the front door and facing window.
“See the difference in aesthetics?” Blondé asks. “You can’t see anything from the street. They would burglarize that house,” he says waving to the home with unfettered growth. “If I were a burglar, I would be more apt to approach this house.”
Our next stop is Huntington Drive, where Blondé shows us a utility pole that hosts four surveillance cameras, each capturing images in a different direction.
“These are constantly recording to a hard drive,” Blondé tells us. ‘These cameras are far more expensive because the information is sent to a database.”
The commander informs us that the data is not used for traffic enforcement.
“It’s to make an impact on the crime rate and hopefully, catch someone in the act of committing a crime,” he says.
The mayor, having recently voted to appropriate funding for the surveillance system, takes a particular interest. Blondé also explains the LPR system – license plate recognition – an elaborate system that reads license plated from a fixed standpoint or from onboard a police cruiser, hoping to identify stolen cars or cars with stolen or phony plates.
Blondé then takes us past a construction site at the corner of Wallingford Rd. and Shakespeare and mentions the high rate of contractor-on-contractor crime, typically involving the theft of expensive tools and supplies.
The casual nature of our journey is shattered by what Blondé calls “an audible.” An alarm has been tripped just a few hundred yards away, and we respond to the call at Wallingford and Santa Anita Ave., where Sgt. Robert Cervantes is already making an assessment of the property.
Blondé asks the mayor and me to stay near the car while he joins Cervantes in the inspection. The officers check the front door and windows for signs of disturbance and carefully peer through the mail slot.
They are soon joined by a third officer, Corporal Henry Todd, and they jump a driveway fence for total access to the property.
After approximately five minutes, the officers reconvene in the driveway to compare notes. Det. Sgt Tim Tebbetts arrives, donning his police vest as he strides towards the home.
The mayor and I notice a blinking security light on the north side of the property, which was possibly the nexus of the alarm. After a brief discussion, highlighted by a great deal of pointing and gesturing, the officers head back to their vehicles.
“There didn’t appear to be any fresh damage or forced entry,” Blondé tells us as he returns to our cruiser and is asked for an evaluation. He also tells us that there appeared to be no dirt or fresh footprints and that a check of doors and windows proved to the officers that nothing had been disturbed.
Sadly, the half hour we spend at the security check has eaten up our allotment. Although it has cost us an opportunity to see other parts of the city, the incident has offered us a rare view into the real workings of the SMPD and the amount of time and care devoted to this seemingly simple exercise in an effort to keep the community safe.
Blondé was hired by the San Marino Police Department in January, 2001, starting as a recruit while performing many of the functions of a cadet. He has advanced to his current assignment as Operations Commander, where he oversees patrol, motor officers, special events, field training, special enforcement, air support, neighborhood watch, equipment and a women’s self-defense program. And he still finds time for a quick response to every query.
He said the SMPD will need to see some statistical data before determining if the surveillance camera system is successful.
“Security,” Blondé said immediately, when asked what one thing he would tell a San Marino homeowner would make their residence safer. “Utilize your locks, lights, an alarm system, and consider home security cameras.”
Mayor Sun was impressed with the real-time response of the SMPD we were able to witness.
“Our police responded promptly and made an effort to enter the resident’s backyard to check the entire property, even though it turned out to be just a false alarm,” said the mayor. “We recently added three cameras on Huntington Dr. just for crime surveillance and will increase patrol services and place deterrent signs at all entry points to San Marino. The council will strive to do everything we can to reduce crime. In three months, the council will evaluate the statistics again to make sure the newly-implemented program is working. San Marinans always take pride in the superior safety and security of our community and we will make every effort to keep it that way.”
And with that, Blondé is off to meet with a resident having neighbor problems, a living testament to the department’s slogan, ‘Pride In Service.’