Tom Smart, Deseret News
The West Valley City police department says it is still working on an exhaustive probe into an incident in which a city officer apparently shot and killed a young woman during a narcotics investigation. We trust that when this study is completed, we will find out why the department has so far refused to reveal even cursory information about what happened.
In the meantime, we are puzzled by the unprecedented obstinacy in informing the public about basic details in the matter, which has generated suspicion over the police department's larger motives.
It's been nearly three months since 21-year-old Danielle Willard was fatally shot by an undercover officer. Police have not disclosed just how she came under fire, and virtually no details of her actions or those of the officers in the moments before or after the shooting have been made public.
This is not normally how police departments handle the release of information in the early stages of an investigation. A case in point is a recent shooting, also in West Valley City, in which officers at the scene released considerable detail about what transpired.
That case involved a man who limped into a tavern after being shot in the ankle. If the matter were handled the way the Willard case has been, this likely would be all we know. But West Valley Lt. Dale Brophy told news reporters within hours of the tavern incident that police determined the man was shot and beaten during a scuffle at a party in a nearby apartment. He reported that officers visited the apartment but made no arrests. He disclosed the case was likely drug-related, and he gave details about the victim's injuries and where he received treatment.
In that case, Brophy apparently did not feel releasing rudimentary information would overstep any bounds of investigative discretion or violate department policy. So why the difference in the Willard case? With nothing else on which to base a conclusion, we are left to assume that it's because it was an officer of West Valley City's own police force who fired the shots that struck the young woman.
Parenthetically, we know she was shot twice in the head only because the State Medical Examiner — not the West Valley Police — released an autopsy report.
For months, the woman's family has asked for answers. Public rallies have been staged to demand the police department come forward with more details. And still, silence.
The department issued a statement asking for patience while it completes a thorough and methodical investigation. At this point, our patience is tried. We expect law enforcement agencies will conduct thorough and methodical investigations in every case. But not in every case are departments so stubbornly quiet about basic details.
So now the public is left with two sets of questions in the case of Danielle Willard. One is about the nature of her death; the other is about the nature of an investigation that has departed so clearly from standard law enforcement protocol.