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In our opinion: Questions in West Valley City

Published: Saturday, March 30 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Recent incidents raise concerns about West Valley City police.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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The city council and mayor of West Valley City are asking for more effective citizen review of the city's police force after recent incidents raised concerns about department operations. It is a valid request, but one that gives rise to a disturbing question — why hasn't such a mechanism for thorough and open review been in place all along?

An even more disturbing question is what kinds of police malfeasance may have occurred in an environment without external oversight? The evidence suggests there may be some, and it may be beyond a few isolated cases of mishandled investigations.

We know the district attorney has had to dismiss 19 felony prosecutions initiated by West Valley City. We know an officer involved in all of those cases is also one of the officers who opened fire on an unarmed woman during a narcotics investigation.

What we don't know are many important details in each of these matters. West Valley police say they are not connected, but until all of the pertinent facts are known, we can't be assured they are the components of a coincidence.

Unfortunately, the West Valley police department has not recently exhibited an attitude conducive to transparency. For months, the department refused to disclose basic facts about the death of Danielle Willard. We only recently learned she was shot by officers who approached her car on suspicion she was using drugs. Police say she struck one of the officers with her car as she backed up, creating an imminent threat of harm that justified their use of deadly force.

The West Valley city manager now says basic information in the case should have been made public earlier. The admission is an acknowledgement that the city has allowed the police department to foster a culture that does not value appropriate openness. There are valid reasons for police to be circumspect about the details of continuing investigations, but we are still without enough information to fairly judge if such circumspection has been necessary in the Willard case.

The call for a more effective citizen review process is a step in the direction of bringing more accountability to police operations going forward. But looking back, a thorough vetting of the Willard case and the 19 dismissed prosecutions is still necessary.

The District Attorney says his office will complete a thorough review of the officer-involved shooting, and we also expect the district attorney to explain in greater detail his decision to close 19 felony complaints. That process must unfold in an open and timely manner before West Valley City officials can legitimately ask for full public confidence in the city's police department.

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