Best, Worst of Times for Police : Law enforcement: Officers help break ‘mall murders’ case. Then a shooting tarnishes their image.
For patrol Officer Walt Hauser, Aug. 31 was a “high-five” day for him and his colleagues on the West Covina Police force.
A day earlier, the department had identified and helped arrest four suspects in three slayings in the San Gabriel Valley dubbed the “mall murders.”
The series of brutal killings had stumped authorities and swept fear over Los Angeles County. The break in the case came when a West Covina patrolman spotted a 1978 Mercury Zephyr--being driven by one of the suspects--that was being sought by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies.
Witnesses to the crimes had described a similar vehicle.
On Aug. 31, after two male and two female suspects were in the West Covina lockup, police and residents alike breathed easier.
“Everybody gets a charge out of it,” said Hauser, an 11-year police veteran. “High fives go around. It makes you feel good.”
But two days later, that high came crashing down.
The West Covina SWAT team stormed the apartment of Darryl Stephens, 27, believed to be an acquaintance of the suspects in the mall murders, and shot and killed him. Police were seeking a sawed-off shotgun. Stephens, it turned out, was unarmed.
In the aftermath, two officers were placed on administrative leave pending an investigation of the shooting by the Sheriff’s Department.
“Things kind of got quiet,” Hauser said of the atmosphere around the Police Department after the incident. “The guys (officers) were concerned.”
Out on the street that same day, Hauser pulled his patrol car into a parking lot.
“‘Who you going to shoot today?”’ Hauser recalled was the taunt from a group of people standing on the corner.
It has been the best of times and the worst of times for the West Covina Police Department.
On one hand, the small suburban force with its 114 sworn personnel prides itself on being a law enforcement leader in the San Gabriel Valley.
It has worked major narcotics cases with U.S. Customs officials and other federal agencies, receiving more than $12 million from assets seized in drug busts. The department is one of six in Los Angeles County linked to the state’s computerized fingerprint identification system.
And within six months, it will have computers in its patrol cars--expensive equipment usually available only to big agencies, such as the Los Angeles Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department.
Yet, West Covina police are still suffering a black eye stemming from the highly publicized kidnap and murder of 10-year-old Ronnie Tolleson 11 years ago.
The boy was kidnaped in March, 1980, and found eight days later trussed up and strangled to death in a house two doors from where he lived.
West Covina police, busy tracking the boy’s neighbor, Danny Jerome Young, to Santa Barbara, Northern California and Nevada, never thoroughly searched the house. Young was later convicted of the boy’s murder.
Ronnie might have lived had police not botched the case from the beginning, argued attorney Peter Wucetich, who has represented the family in a lawsuit against the department.
In 1989, a Pomona Superior Court jury agreed and awarded Tolleson’s father, Ronald, $5.7 million. The amount was later reduced to $300,000 by a judge.
A compromise settlement was hashed out this summer between the city’s insurance carrier and Wucetich. But the monetary amount remains confidential, said Erin Hoppe, the city’s risk manager.
The highs and lows are just the vagaries of police work, says Cmdr. John Distelrath, who oversees the city’s detectives.
“You guys don’t know about the 3-year-old we rescued five weeks ago?” Distelrath asked last week, sounding annoyed and talking fast. He said he was referring to a local kidnap-ransom case that was successfully resolved by police.
“You get one kid back and you lose one. Is that a black eye?
“I don’t think so.”
Similarly, he points out that, until the fatal shooting of Stephens, the department’s 22-member SWAT team had never killed anyone in its 22 years.
“You’ve got to put it in perspective,” the commander said. “The law of averages, for goodness sakes, catches up with you.”
If Distelrath, a 25-year veteran of the force, seems to take things personally, it’s not surprising.
“I tell people coming in it’s somewhat like a family,” said soft-spoken Police Chief Ron Holmes, 51, a 29-year veteran of the force. “People here know each other. You’re not a number here, like on a larger department.”
Indeed, many of West Covina’s officers seem to have grown up with the department as it evolved from a small suburban force protecting a fast-growing, peaceful bedroom community to a full-fledged urban outfit fighting drug and gang wars.
“On a smaller scale, we, Pomona and the other (San Gabriel Valley) cities have the same crimes as the big cities,” Holmes said.
West Covina was not like that when Holmes and Distelrath started as patrol officers in the 1960s.
Then, the city was mainly Anglo and one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation. The growth spurt in the 1960s and 1970s came after developers tore up the city’s walnut and orange groves to build spanking-new housing tracts for the burgeoning middle class fleeing gritty Los Angeles.
Now, 30 years later, those tracts have aged and the city’s complexion and atmosphere have changed dramatically.
West Covina residents are no longer predominantly Anglo. Today, the population is 16% Asian, 8% black, 35% Latino and 40% Anglo.
Neighborhoods range from $895,000 homes in the exclusive South Hills and East Hills to battered and graffiti-plagued apartments in south West Covina.
With the growth and changes, crime has increased. Homicides rose from three in 1989 to 11 last year. Eleven have been logged so far this year. Serious gang crime rose 74% last year, from 131 reported crimes in 1989 to 228 in 1990. And the city has 11 gangs with 2,100 members.
To combat it all, the Police Department has created special units: first the SWAT team, then a 6-year-old anti-narcotics Special Enforcement Team and the year-old Street Crime Apprehension Team, with two two-person patrol cars to prowl the city’s gang-heavy south side.
Still, the department has managed to keep the family-feeling of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Personnel turnover is at a standstill, Holmes said. While officers at most small police departments leave after a couple of years for higher pay, advancement or clean air elsewhere, West Covina officers have begun to stick around. That has translated into more experienced, veteran officers on the force, Holmes said.
The department hangs on to its people because of a good working relationship between the officers, the chief and City Council, said Hauser, president of the Police Officers’ Assn., the labor group that represents sworn officers.
The chief’s rapport with a supportive City Council translates into money spent on equipment for the department, Hauser said. These embellishments include new Ford LTD patrol cars every 60,000 miles, $1.8 million to upgrade the police computer system and $5 million five years ago to rehabilitate the police headquarters.
Meanwhile, Holmes has an “open-door policy” with his officers.
“I can barge into his office at any time,” Hauser said.
That policy resulted in a shift change a year ago, sought by the officers themselves. Patrol officers now work three days a week on 12 1/2-hour shifts.
Yet, the picture is not all rosy.
The department does not mirror the community it serves. It has 13 Latino officers, five blacks and six women, one of whom is a Latina.
Last year, 22 complaints, four of them for excessive force, were filed against officers. Another 20 have been filed so far this year.
Police Watch, a Los Angeles civil rights group, received another 20 complaints last year and 13 so far this year.
Complaints range from rudeness, to racism, to physical assaults by officers, said the group’s director Carol Heppe.
Although the number is about on a par with those logged against other San Gabriel Valley cities of similar size, Heppe maintains that “20 complaints out of a force of 114 is a pretty serious statement.”
Yet, Holmes said most of those complaints turn out to be unfounded. Indeed, of the 22 filed last year, the city sustained only two, neither of them for excessive force.
Although five lawsuits are pending against the Police Department, from 1989 and 1990 incidents, Hoppe said the Tolleson case is the only judgment against the city she recalls in her 17 years on the job.
Meanwhile, the department wants to hire more minority officers, but is stymied by the low turnover.
“You’ve got to have openings to hire them,” Holmes said.
Overall, the chief said, the department is made up of dedicated professionals who, from time to time, run into incidents such as the Stephens’ shooting, or the Tolleson case.
“Some parts of police work are pretty negative,” Holmes said. “You have to take the good with the bad.”