In light of the Feb. 20 fatal shooting of a Whittier Police officer and the injury of a second officer, this year’s American Legion Police and Fire Luncheon began with a moment of silence and prayer for the community of Whittier and first responders in general.
“The events of yesterday are fresh in our minds,” La Habra Police Chaplain Mike Murphy said Tuesday, Feb. 21.
Hosted and catered at the La Habra Elks Lodge, the Police and Fire Luncheon, in its 52nd year, is put on by La Habra’s American Legion Post 267.
“Our intention has always been to thank our police and fire department for your protection and service,” said Legion Post 267 Commander Leona Lance. “We do thank you from the bottom of our heart.”
La Habra Police Department Officer Michael Costanzo was awarded Police Officer of the Year and Los Angeles County Fire Department Captain Rob Cendejas was recognized as Firefighter of the Year.
Battalion Chief Scott Salhus, along with a group of firefighters and ambulance operators, accepted the award on behalf of Cendejas. The captain was unable to attend due to an injury he sustained when he fell, while assisting an elderly woman into an ambulance during the rain.
“I gotta say, the guy is very dedicated to the job, very dedicated to La Habra,” Salhus said.
La Habra PD Chief Jerry Price took the stage alongside Costanzo as he received his award. Price said that Costanzo began his career at LHPD in February 2006. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Montana, where he also played football.
“He followed in the footsteps of his father, Steve Costanzo, who retired from the La Habra PD as a lieutenant,” Price said. “Coincidentally, his father received this same award during his career.”
Costanzo’s parents, who live out of state, could not attend the ceremony. However, his wife and several other members of his family were present to see him recognized. Steve sent Price a message to convey to his son and the attendees.
“‘Joanne and I are both very proud of Michael,’” relayed Price. “‘In our opinion, he is an excellent police officer and public servant to the city of La Habra…We are additionally proud of the person he has become. He’s 10 times the cop I ever was. As a family, we love to hear about his experiences. Sometimes they scare us a bit, but he is good at what he does.’”
Costanzo worked as a patrol officer and as a gang detective from 2009 until he returned to patrol in 2015. Back in patrol, he was selected to become a field training officer (FTO).
“Since returning to patrol, Michael has made several arrests based on his ability to read people and suspects,” Price said.
For example, while on patrol, Costanzo noticed a suspicious subject at a local gas station. He made contact with the subject and, after an investigation, he recovered a purse that had been stolen minutes earlier in a vehicle burglary from a local school.
“At the time of the crime, there were no witnesses or clues as to who took the purse,” said Price. “Had Michael not been proactive and not acted upon his suspicion, the suspect would have escaped apprehension.”
Price gave another example of Costanzo’s dedication in a case that took place a little more than a year ago when the officer was assisting in a theft investigation involving a firearm.
“He conducted a traffic stop on the suspect in the city of Whittier,” said Price. “After the vehicle stopped, the suspect attempted to flee on foot. Michael gave chase. The suspect was armed with a handgun and Michael was confronted with a lethal force situation.”
Price said Costanzo was involved in a shooting with the suspect. No officers were injured during the shooting, but the suspect was hit and transported for medical treatment, Price said.
“This particular incident is one that clearly demonstrates Michael’s dedication to duty and the community while putting himself in harm’s way,” he said.
Over the past year as an FTO, Costanzo has trained four new officers and also filled in for other FTOs, when needed, according to Price.
“The process of training new police officers is challenging, and Michael readily accepted those challenges with the goal of producing the best officers,” said Price. “All of his trainees are now working the streets of La Habra and he will train many more this year.”
Price said Costanzo is proactive and always willing to help and mentor fellow employees. He regularly brings topics to briefings and holds training for his peers. Plus, he also is a natural leader and it’s common for Costanzo to be an incident commander in perimeters or searches when a supervisor isn’t present.
“Michael doesn’t just do his job, he helps others regularly,” Price said. “He has taken extra shifts to ensure proper coverage, worked with the Traffic Unit and assisted with numerous DUI patrols and checkpoints.”
Costanzo also has been a recipient of the La Habra Police Association’s Officer of the Year award, a Unit Citation, a Chief’s Citation and has received many commendations for his work.
“Michael is a credit to the police service and the La Habra Police Department,” said Price.
After receiving the American Legion’s Officer of the Year award, Costanzo said: “I’m very proud to receive this award.”
He said his passion for law enforcement went back to childhood – he thought his dad was “the coolest” for being a cop.
“I remember being a little kid and wanting to be a police officer,” Costanzo said.
He said police officers deal with two groups of people: those who call for service and the criminal element.
For the first, he said, “Be the officer that you’d want to respond to your house and deal with your family.”
For the latter, he said, “You want to be the sheep dog that protects the herd from the wolves.”