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Latino activists call for civil rights investigation of West Valley police

Accusations come as warrants in department's shooting death are unsealed

Published: Saturday, March 23 2013 11:19 a.m. MDT

West Valley police officers investigate an officer-involved shooting at the Lexington Park Apartments near 3715 South and 2200 West Friday, Nov. 2, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — Latino activists in Utah said a large number of Hispanics are being charged with crimes in West Valley City and they are enlisting the help of federal agencies to determine why.

"We're not here to say whether they are innocent or guilty, but whether their civil rights were violated," said Tony Yapias of Proyecto Latino de Utah. He was referring to 19 West Valley criminal cases dismissed this week by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, 15 of which involved Hispanic defendants.

Yapias stopped short of saying that police are guilty of racial profiling but said: "There might be something more going on here."

The new accusations came Friday during a particularly difficult week for the West Valley Police Department, which is under scrutiny for the dismissed cases and an officer-involved shooting death that has been under investigation for more than four months. New search warrants related to the shooting death were also released Friday.

The extra attention isn't new for West Valley police. It has endured public and media scrutiny as far back as 2009, when the department began handling the unsolved case of missing Utah mother Susan Cox Powell.

In recent weeks, the agency has dealt with wrongful death accusations from the mother of a Danielle Willard, 21, who was shot and killed by plain-clothed police officers working a drug case in November; the impromptu retirement of a veteran police chief, Thayle "Buzz" Neilsen, who is said to be dealing with issues of poor health; and then, the dismissal of 19 cases believed to involve dubious evidence and an unreliable investigator, according to Gill.

Late Thursday, it was also discovered that a West Valley police officer who had been missing since Tuesday had shot himself in the head while driving in southwestern Wyoming. Officer Mike Valdes was declared dead from an apparent suicide.

Three search warrants pertaining to Willard's case were unsealed Friday. The documents detail West Valley police accounts of what occurred Nov. 2 in an apartment complex parking lot; however, Willard's mother maintains a different story.

Police had been conducting surveillance on a house, 3644 S. 2200 West, that was involved in an active investigation into illegal narcotics distribution, according to the documents. Police witnessed Willard in an apparent drug transaction with another man, who exited the house and approached Willard.

The search warrants indicate that the man later admitted to police that he sold Willard $40 worth of heroin. Two of the documents, however, offer a different name of the man allegedly involved in the transaction. The warrants identified Brandon Gines, but Erik Ekstrom is also mentioned.

Willard is said by police to have left the house and driven to a nearby apartment complex at 3710 S. 2200 West, where she parked and appeared to be "starting to use" the drugs in her vehicle, the search warrants state.

Police say Willard moved the vehicle to another spot in the same parking lot and reversed out of the spot just as two detectives, Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon, approached her. Cowley was hit in the leg by the vehicle as it was backing out of the parking spot and the warrants indicate that police then fired at Willard as she continued backing up.

Investigators said the vehicle continued in reverse after she was shot in the head, eventually completing a 360-degree turn.

The vehicle stopped when it impacted another vehicle in the same lot. Willard was found slumped over the passenger seat and officers broke the windows to get inside. The documents state that police then pulled Willard from the passenger side and put her on the ground to begin resuscitation efforts.

Police removed three bullet fragments, a plastic bag containing "brown, tar-like substance," a wallet and purse and their contents, a cellphone, nearly $200 in cash and various drug paraphernalia from Willard's vehicle, the warrants state. Police tried to obtain information about texts or other phone calls from the cellphones, but at least some of those inquiries turned up nothing.

The search warrants indicate a story that is different from what Willard's mother and her attorney believe occurred that day. The attorney said the officers' explanation "has the earmarks of a police coverup."

Cowley and Salmon remain on paid administrative leave as investigations into the shooting continue. Cowley is also the focus of a separate investigation that involves the 19 cases that Gill dismissed. Cowley was the lead investigator in each of those cases and Gill said they were dropped because of credibility issues.

West Valley police maintain that its detectives "are conducting these cases based on the merits of the case, whether these crimes have been committed," West Valley Police Sgt. Jason Hauer said Thursday. He said there is no indication of Hispanic discrimination.

Gill said his review of the 19 cases also did not turn up any suspicions about race.

"We have wonderful men and women who do their job honorably and with great distinction as law enforcement officers and they do their job professionally," he said, adding that he couldn't speculate about what might still be discovered regarding the cases. "We should not be prematurely judging them."

Archie Archuletta, president of the Utah Coalition of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights advocacy organization, said Friday that Latinos have had a "good working relationship" with police forces across the valley and in the state, but rising amounts of violence between police officers and others is a growing concern.

"We've got to stop the gun craziness going on in our state," he said, adding that the attitude is "infectious and frightening," even for police "who have to confront the people who have no business having guns."

The mounting fear tactics, he said, border on anti-immigration practices.

Gill said the community would not tolerate such behavior "in law enforcement, in education or on any other level."

"Of course if that was in fact the case, it would be of great concern to everybody because it besmirches the integrity of the entire criminal justice system," he said. Gill said painting all police officers with the same brush would be unfair.

Yapias and Archuletta have contacted the U.S. Department of Justice for further review of the 19 West Valley police cases. A conciliation specialist with the regional office in Denver could neither confirm nor deny federal involvement on Friday.

The two activists also intend to involve the FBI's civil rights division in the discussion.

"Everybody wants to know what has happened here," Yapias said. He said federal agencies will provide another set of eyes on the matter to see if the trend continues beyond what surfaced in the dismissed cases.

"We're the eyes for the community," he said. "We have an obligation to make sure nobody's civil rights have been violated."

E-mail: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards

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