We deeply appreciate the men and women who volunteer to serve on this important board. But trying times demand that we take a fresh look at how we can help this board be as effective as possible. —City Manager Wayne Pyle
WEST VALLEY CITY — Admitting its police department has had public relations challenges in recent months, West Valley City officials on Tuesday said now is a good time to make the department and its citizen's review committee more transparent.
Saying that as a whole, the West Valley City Council was "frustrated" with the recent issues that have come up regarding the city's police department, Mayor Mike Winder on Tuesday called on City Manager Wayne Pyle to "modernize our Professional Standards Review Board."
"We deeply appreciate the men and women who volunteer to serve on this important board. But trying times demand that we take a fresh look at how we can help this board be as effective as possible," he said in a prepared letter.
Because of "recent challenges being faced by our police department," Winder has asked Pyle to put the project on the fast track and come up with some ideas by the next city planning meeting on April 9.
The West Valley City Police Department has received its share of public criticism in recent years beginning with the Susan Cox Powell investigation. Many in the public, including the parents of Susan Powell, were frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of information being released by the department, even three years after the investigation began.
Most recently, the department came under scrutiny after officers shot and killed Danielle Willard during an undercover drug operation in November. The police department remained silent for 20 weeks about their investigation before recently releasing information about the shooting. Two officers remain on paid administrative leave pending an investigation.
Willard's mother and her attorney have repeatedly expressed frustrations with the department. They have asked for information and evidence involving the investigation and even say the case has "the earmarks of a police coverup."
On Thursday, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office is scheduled to begin its official review of the shooting to determine whether the officers were justified in using deadly force. The meeting between District Attorney Sim Gill's office and West Valley police is scheduled to last at least two days.
One of the officers involved in the shooting, detective Shaun Cowley, is also the focus of a second internal investigation. Gill recently dismissed 19 criminal cases — most of them drug-related — that Cowley had investigated. That decision came after West Valley police asked another police department to look at four of its criminal cases. Gill said it then became evident that his office could no longer prosecute the 19 cases because of credibility issues.
Cowley told KSTU Tuesday he did nothing wrong and expects to be cleared in the shooting death because he believed his life was in jeopardy.
"It's a bad situation that happened and the lack of information that was provided to (Willard's) family and to us as officers is not right," he said.
Cowley also told the TV station he doesn't know why Gill dismissed those 19 cases he investigated. "I don't know if this has something to do with the shooting. I don't know what his motivation is," he said.
West Valley City's six member civilian review committee currently never makes its reports public.
Winder on Tuesday said he he "strongly" encourages Pyle to look at making the review board more transparent. He called it a way of making a "good" police department even better. The City Council agreed, and noted that now would be the right time to make changes as West Valley will soon be looking for a new police chief. Earlier this month, Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen announced his retirement after 33 years because of recent surgery and an expected long recovery.
The city has not yet officially begun its search for a new chief.
The letter, Winder said, is "not a knock" on the police department. But rather he said it is a good time to look at what other cities, such as Salt Lake City, are doing. Cities are not required to have a Professional Standards Review Board. But both Salt Lake City and West Valley City do.
"Our effort in putting that (committee) together in the first place was citizen accountability," Pyle said.
But while the focus in the past was on how the committee reviewed police cases, Pyle said maybe more focus needs to be given to how citizens are viewing what is happening from an outside perspective.
Both Pyle and acting Police Chief Anita Schwimmer said they both would like the department to be more transparent, as long as legal concerns, the rights of victims and the ability to protect the integrity of an investigation are balanced with the public's right to know.
"Certainly we have had our challenges over the last couple of years from a media relations standpoint. There have been a lot of adverse kind of cases that have been here in this city that we need to respond to," Pyle said. "We want our residents and our citizens to be comfortable that we have a great, and a functioning and an effective police force that is obeying the law."
Pyle said one idea that may be discussed would be allowing police to give more of a preliminary statement at the outset of an investigation to give the public comfort that a case is being worked.
"One thing, for sure, we would like to do from an improvement standpoint from that angle, is see how we can be more open at the very beginning of a process without compromising the investigation," he said.
Winder also asked Pyle to look at the possibility of giving the citizen's review committee its own full-time investigator.