In some professions, the disciples of a strong and innovative leader who follow his style are called part of the “tree” of the founder.
In Orange County law enforcement there grew over the years a particularly strong “Giampa tree.” More than a dozen current and former police chiefs grew out of tiny La Palma under the guidance of Chief of Police Vincent Giampa.
On Thursday, June 20, the root for this succession of law leaders died of complications from dementia. He was 75.
On the job and through his life, Giampa was a builder, an organizer, and a fixer. He saw each project through to its proper conclusion, like his identically tied shoelaces.
He was a valued mentor, a parent, a humanitarian, and a staunch proponent of community policing. Starting as a patrolman in 1970, Giampa spent 34 at the La Palma Police Department until his retirement.
“I have to say I couldn’t be more proud,” said Giampa’s eldest son, Jeff, a pastor at Idyllwild Bible Church. “He left nothing unfinished.”
A cradle of chiefs
The enclave of La Palma – Orange County’s smallest city with about 15,000 residents tucked between Cerritos, Cypress, and Buena Park – would seem to be an unlikely wellspring of policing talent, until you learn about Giampa.
“He was a gentleman’s gentleman and a cop’s cop,” said Jeff Kirpatrick, who as a reserve officer met Giampa and went on to become Chief of Police for the City of Seal Beach Police Department.
“The chief of the smallest city with the biggest heart,” is how he was described by Bill Rams, a former police beat reporter for the Orange County Register.
It may seem ironic that a traditional, spit and polish, cop’s cop would be at the front edge of a progressive movement like community policing. The two seemingly opposing notions for a guy who was as comfortable in a SWAT situation as he was at a coffee and donuts community event make sense when you realize the two are not as far apart as one might think. Both are rooted in pragmatism and making the police as effective as possible.
“He was a doer,” said Eric R. Nunez, a La Palma officer who went on to become the 10th chief of police for La Palma before becoming the Chief at Los Alamitos and the 55th President of the California Police Chiefs Association. “He was able to put programs in place and make it work.”
Leaders from the Giampa chiefing “tree” include Kirkpatrick, Nunez, Mark Yokoyama, Academic Dean of Public Safety Programs at Rio Hondo College and a three-time former chief; Mike Sellers, former Chief of Fullerton, Laguna Beach, and Seal Beach police departments; and Giampa’s successors at La Palma such as Ed Ethell and Terry Kim, the first Korean-American Chief of the city’s police department.
“He touched each of us,” Kirkpatrick said.
Giampa taught his officers the importance and value of community policing as the best way to unite communities and police, something he picked up from his predecessors, including former Chief Dave Barr.
Community policing dates back to Sir Robert Peel and mid-19th century London and is rooted in fostering public and police engagement and collaboration.
“Vince was on top of that. He embraced those policies,” Kirkpatrick said. “La Palma was the perfect place to enact them.”
“He believed you meet people where they are,” Nunez said, and that meant people of all ages and from all walks of life.
“Our connection with the community was not just voters, but was truly community-wide,” Nunez said.
That led Giampa to promote efforts such as School Resource Officers for middle and high schools, Police Explorers in under-served communities, citizens’ police academies, West County CERT and training academy, and officers just getting out of their cars and mingling.
When he was elevated to Chief of Police for La Palma, according to the Los Angeles Times, then City Manager Daniel E. Keen credited Giampa with “creating a highly effective juvenile offender diversion program and praised his role in other department accomplishments in recent years, such as setting up an automated records management system, a K-9 program, and anti-drug youth education efforts.”
He also made sure La Palma was represented in the cadre of trainers at local police academies, which kept his department up to date on new laws, tactics, practices, and theories of policing.
It also allowed La Palma to be on the lookout for “diamonds in the rough who went unnoticed in academy,” according to Nunez. The theory was to “recruit for character, train for competency,” Nunez said.
Although he lacked advanced formal education, Giampa had an exceptional mind, according to colleagues. He didn’t just help others find their greatness, he built a strong resume of his own.
Giampa graduated from the elite, international FBI Academy law enforcement training and research center in Quantico, Va. From this he built a network of acquaintances from Scotland Yard to Tokyo, Kirkpatrick said.
That became the impetus for “Los Al Tuesdays,” where command staff from four small departments gathered to discuss issues and brainstorm over lunch in Los Alamitos.
Giampa also helped enact important legislation that grew out of a near-tragedy in La Palma. When Nunez was a sergeant in La Palma under Giampa, he very nearly killed a teenager on an elementary school campus brandishing an Airsoft toy gun nearly identical to an AK-47. When the youth’s parents immediately demanded the return of the lookalike toy, it angered and spurred Giampa to work on legislation regarding imitation firearms.
“To achieve this, he had to successfully lobby and marshal the participation of several state legislators,” Kirkpatrick said.
Giampa’s name may not appear on the legislation against brandishing imitation firearms in public, but Nunez said that was never his concern.
Giampa’s feeling was, “I don’t care who gets credit as long as (it’s done),” Nunez said.
“We made a training video that potentially saved kids’ lives,” Nunez said of a Giampa-inspired effort to teach officers how to handle similar situations. “It was stuff like that he did. He always took on whatever roles and responsibilities were needed.”
Kirkatrick says Giampa also “single-handedly organized La Palma PD’s first SWAT team in 1979,” which later became Orange County’s quick reaction force during the 1984 Summer Olympics in case of terrorism.
Giampa was also an avid aviator. He joined Angel Flight West, a network of volunteer pilots who provide free medical transportation to ambulatory patients in need, and eventually became a member of the group’s Leadership Team.
A final example of Giampa as a finisher and fixer came after retirement. In 1974, Giampa was the lead investigator on a murder that would become La Palma’s lone cold case. The case topped Giampa’s list of unfinished business, and through the years he peppered colleagues with questions about the city’s most notorious and vexing crime.
After his retirement, he challenged officers, offering a steak dinner to whoever solved the case. A decade later, a third generation of detectives building on the work of Giampa and others, solved the case and arrested the killer.
Life well lived
Giampa was born Oct. 26, 1947, in Norwalk, Conn., the youngest of the three sons of Felix and Anna Giampa. When he was 12, the family moved to Santa Ana, and in 1965 Giampa graduated from Santiago High in Garden Grove. He entered the Air Force where he was part of the Military Police at March Air Force base before being honorably discharged.
A young Giampa met the Chief of the Lake Elsinore Police Department. As the legend goes, the Chief had zero interest until he learned Giampa had a boat to which he could have access. Giampa worked at Lake Elsinore before becoming a La Palma patrolman in 1970.
Giampa married Linda Badger in 1973 and together they had three children, Jeffrey, Gina, and Jason, before divorcing in 1986. Prior to the divorce, one of Jeff’s strongest memories was sitting on a bench watching his father polish his shoes to a mirror gleam.
“Everyone chuckled about those shoes,” said Jeff, adding that a pair of his dad’s shoes are now on a shelf of his office. Jeff also remembers his dad would take him to the station, to community pancake breakfasts, and to visit SWAT demonstrations. The love of law enforcement stuck with the eldest son, who would become a police chaplain for six years.
In retirement Giampa turned his attention to being a full-time grandpa and dad, particularly to Gina, who says, “I was his princess.”
Giampa became an unofficial grandparent-of-the-year to her three children and other grandkids.
“He was so close to my kids. He never missed (an event),” Gina said of the children’s games, recitals, and activities. “Everybody knew whose Grandpa he was. He never missed a single thing.”
In his way, maybe Giampa was trying to make up for what he had lost. According to Jeff, if his dad had a lingering regret throughout his later life, it was the thing the ultimate fixer couldn’t repair, his divorce and the breakup of the family.
Jeff remembers a piece of advice his dad gave to a nephew entering the Sheriff’s Department. Giampa warned the deputy-to-be not to let the job take over his life.
“Don’t let it cost you your family like it cost me,” Jeff recalled his dad saying.
Vincent Giampa was pronounced dead at 10:10 a.m. with his children in attendance, each holding his hand.
To a man who, in the end, valued family more than anything, it was perhaps a perfect close.
Vincent Giampa is survived by his three children Jeffrey, 47, and wife, Denise, of Idyllwild; Gina, 46, and her husband, Dustin, of Murrieta; Jason, 39, of Rogue River, Ore.; 10 grandchildren, and one great grandchild.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m., Thursday, July 6.at Reliance Church, 29825 Santiago Rd, Temecula, CA 92592.