For years, the city of West Covina has prided itself on having one of the nation’s best suburban police departments.
City police regularly grabbed headlines for multimillion-dollar drug busts, garnering praise from state and federal agencies. Police Chief Craig Meacham amassed an impressive resume, twice being elected by other police chiefs to represent their profession.
But last week a major blow was dealt to that reputation when a Pomona Superior Court jury found the department negligent in the kidnap-murder case of 10-year-old Ronnie Tolleson Jr. in 1980. The jury awarded the boy’s father, Ronald Allan Tolleson Sr., a $5.74-million judgment in the wrongful-death suit, and individual jurors castigated the department--and specifically Meacham--for conducting a shoddy investigation.
City officials, who are considering an appeal, fear that public confidence in the police could be eroded. Despite the verdict, they argue that the city has an excellent police force.
“It’s a slap at our organization and reputation and it is not deserved,” said Meacham, defending his department of 113 officers. “I would challenge anybody to question our ability.”
The verdict, some believe, has done just that. One of Tolleson’s attorneys, Charles C. Simon, said the jury’s finding touches on “the whole question of accountability.”
“Who do you call if you’re in trouble?” he asked. “I don’t think the jury found the West Covina department to be competent.”
In interviews after the decision was announced, jurors said they were alarmed that the house of Danny Jerome Young, who was convicted of second-degree murder, was not fully searched even after he became the main suspect.
A week after the boy’s abduction, his body was discovered at Young’s residence, two doors from the child’s home. During the trial, medical examiners testified that Ronnie was alive for several days after he was abducted. According to testimony from a retired police officer, Lt. William Flynn, Meacham rejected a request to conduct a more thorough search. Meacham has denied Flynn’s statements.
Jurors said they were shocked that Young was able to elude police at a ransom drop that was under surveillance. They concluded the police should have realized that they lacked the proper experience and asked for outside help.
In making their decision, jurors disregarded the testimony of Young, who said he killed Ronnie Tolleson almost immediately after abducting him.
Meacham said the outcome of the case, although tragic, did not stem from police impropriety.
“I’d hate to see the reputation of the department sullied by this case,” he said. “We did a damn good job, but unfortunately, we were not able to save the boy.”
West Covina Mayor Robert L. Bacon praised the department and its chief, but acknowledged that he is worried about the public perception.
“It is an obvious concern on my part,” he said. “My opinion, despite what the jury found in the case, is that the Police Department is first rate. If anything . . . this was an aberration.”
Officials from other law enforcement agencies supported Bacon’s assessment.
“The (jury’s) decision is not a reflection on the department at all,” said Pleasanton Police Chief Bill Eastman, president of the 300-member California Police Chiefs Assn. "(Meacham’s) reputation and his department’s reputation is beyond reproach.”
Eastman said the West Covina department has been at the forefront of bringing new technology into police work, such as computerized dispatching. “They really have been pioneers as far as policing is concerned.”
Similarly, federal drug enforcement officials have enjoyed a successful relationship with the department.
“They’re as professional a department as we’ve worked with,” said George Heard, associate agent in charge of the Los Angeles field division.
“Their success rate is very good,” Heard said. “We have no reservations working any type of investigation with the West Covina Police Department.”
In recent years, the department’s Special Enforcement Team, a narcotics unit, has been held up as a model for small police departments. At times, it has made gigantic seizures rivaling those in Los Angeles and Miami.
West Covina stepped up the campaign against drug dealers in 1984, becoming one of the first cities in the nation to benefit from the federal asset-seizure program allowing local agencies to claim money and property from narcotics investigations.
In April, at a ceremony in Orange County with President Bush, Meacham accepted a $1.72-million check for the department’s share of the $6.9 million in cash confiscated in a raid in Walnut in June, 1988. Also in April, the West Covina and Rialto police seized $1 million in alleged cocaine profits after a two-week investigation.
The department also boasts of a five-minute response time on emergency calls. Eastman, the Pleasanton chief, called the five-minute mark “outstanding,” given the city’s traffic and size.
Bacon cited the department’s conviction rate for felons, which hovers around 89% as “absolutely the best” of any department in the San Gabriel Valley.
Much of the credit is given to Meacham--the officer singled out for most of the personal blame by the Tolleson jury. While two subordinates were absolved by jurors and a third held liable for 1% of the wrongdoing, the jury determined that Meacham shouldered 20% of the responsibility. The city was held 79% liable.
But Bacon said there is no crisis in confidence for the chief.
“I don’t believe there is a better professional in the state,” he said. “I think in this case, all actions were appropriate.”
Meacham became the West Covina chief in 1979, after working his way through the ranks of the Whittier police and spending nine years in West Covina.
Ronald Tolleson said the jury was correct in laying most of the blame on Meacham, because “he’s the boss; it’s his department.”
Noting police success in drug enforcement and other areas, Tolleson said the breakdown occurred in the specialized field of kidnap investigation.
“If it’s a burglary or a drug thing they do a good job,” he said. “but in this case, a kidnaping, they didn’t know what to do and then they didn’t ask for help. They should have, for Ronnie.”
Meacham said he was disturbed by the outcome of the trial, arguing that the jury may have been blinded by sympathy over Tolleson’s loss. Meacham said jurors misapplied the law, holding police accountable for not saving the boy, whose life was beyond saving.
“What you’ve got is nine ladies and three men, probably all of whom are parents and related to the grief he suffered,” he said.
But juror Charlene Batts said after the verdict that jurors were not swayed by sympathy, but a pattern of negligent miscues by police.
“There were mistakes,” she said. “We came to the right decision.”