ARCADIA — When Neal Johnson joined the Arcadia Police Department in 1956 as a patrolman, there were 22 officers in the department serving a population of about 30,000.
Now, as the new police chief, Johnson oversees 71 sworn officers who serve 46,000 residents.
The strawberry fields that dotted the foothills are gone, but Johnson said Arcadia is still basically the same bedroom community with the same crime problems it had when he joined the department.
Johnson, 51, who was named police chief Nov. 6, had been acting chief since July 5 when Charles Mitchell retired because of poor health. Mitchell died of cancer Aug. 2.
72 Applied for Position
"I could easily have appointed Neal chief in July because I felt he was qualified and could do a good job," said City Manager George Watts, who appointed Johnson to the $53,448-a-year job. "But I wanted to make sure I was selecting the best person available for the position and I had to talk to other people interested (in the job).
"I had 72 applicants and interviewed eight. Although they were excellent, I got nothing more from them than I was getting from Neal as far as knowledge of the field and an understanding of today's police problems. Neal had as much knowledge and as much experience as the other candidates, so I had on my own staff the best man available for the job."
"We have great hopes he will bring the department up to date (when a new police facility is constructed), and we have great expectations for him," said Bruce Smith, president of the Arcadia Police Relief Assn., which represents police officers in negotiations with the city.
As acting chief, Johnson was faced with a unique crime problem in this affluent community where residential burglaries are generally the prevalent crimes. Shortly before he was named acting chief, two Arcadia women were slain within six days. Panic spread through the community when it became apparent that a serial murderer was at large in the San Gabriel Valley.
Johnson conducted community meetings in August to lay to rest rumors of rampant crime in the city and to help residents learn how to secure their homes.
With the arrest Aug. 31 of Night Stalker suspect Richard Ramirez, life has returned to normal and residential burglary has again become the leading crime.
And Johnson has been able to turn his attention to plans for the $10.5-million police station to be built next to the existing facility in Arcadia's Civic Center, on the median dividing Huntington Drive.
"This building is too small and outmoded," he said of the present facility. "The new building will solve a lot of our needs.
"I am also interested in advanced training for officers. I will be talking to them about what they want, which can range from traffic enforcement and investigative techniques to child abuse and homicide."
Captain's Post Open
Johnson also must take care of some personnel matters, including filling his his former position as captain.
"The position is open to lieutenants and sergeants and promotion will be from within the department," he said. The department has 2 captains, 4 lieutenants and 10 sergeants.
"And beginning next July we will have a new retirement program, so more people will retire early. This means the department personnel will change.
"I will also make some changes in the way the department is managed because I believe in the participative management theory. I have qualified supervisors who will be assisting me in running the department. I want to utilize the talent."
Johnson made his way through the ranks. He was named sergeant in 1960 and served in records, the detective bureau, personnel, community relations and crime prevention.
Headed Detective Bureau
In 1968 he advanced to lieutenant and served as detective bureau commander and in special operations. He became captain in 1978 and has served in administration since then.
Although residential burglaries have been the leading crime problem in his 29 years with the department, Johnson said the completion of the Foothill (210) Freeway through the city in 1972 caused an increase in armed robberies as more people came through town.
Santa Anita race track has always had some difficulties, mainly involving traffic.
And Santa Anita Fashion Park, built in 1975, which greatly increased business activity in the community, has brought special problems.
"There is some shoplifting but most of the time we have only a few problems there," he said. "At Christmas we man a trailer there as a substation and patrol the inside of the mall and the parking lots because of an increase in theft and shoplifting."
Johnson, who has lived in the San Gabriel Valley all his life, attended Alhambra High School, Pasadena City College and the University of La Verne.
"I got interested in police work when I joined the Army and was assigned to military police," he said. "So when I got out of the Army I applied to the Arcadia Police Department."
Johnson, married and the father of three, has two sons who are following in his footsteps.
His oldest son works for Southern California Edison Co.'s security department and his youngest for the Monrovia Police Department. Several years ago he became legal guardian of a family friend orphaned at age 15 and that "son" works for the Los Angeles Police Department.
"I didn't come from a law enforcement family," Johnson said. But it seems he has started one.