Is embattled West Valley police detective being fired?

100 of department's drug cases could now be dismissed, D.A. says

Published: Friday, April 5 2013 1:00 p.m. MDT

West Valley police detective Shaun Cowley is taken to an ambulance by paramedics after he and another detective shot and killed Danielle Willard, 21, during an undercover drug operation, Nov. 2, 2012. Cowley is the focus of several ongoing police investigations.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — A West Valley police detective under investigation by several agencies for alleged corruption is being fired, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police announced Friday.

But a spokesman for West Valley City denied that any final decision about detective Shaun Cowley's employment has been made.

Brett Rawson, an attorney for the police union, said Cowley was told on Thursday that the West Valley Police Department intends to fire him within the next seven to 10 days based on issues of "mishandling evidence, insubordination, and dereliction of duty."

He called the timing of the decision "extremely suspect" since the FBI was just asked one day earlier to investigate Cowley and the department's narcotics unit, which was disbanded in December.

"The most ironic part of the West Valley City Police Department's intention to terminate is that its decision is based primarily on an internal audit of the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, which was conducted by two members of the department who may be culpable themselves for failing to train and supervise the detectives in the unit," he said.

He called it a "sad day" for the department, saying it is more interested in "hanging a single officer out to dry rather than holding their supervisors and administrators accountable for what appears to be a pervasive and systematic failure to train and supervise their narcotics officers."

But city spokesman Aaron Crim said the police department has only asked Cowley to respond to a "process to evaluate the concerns and allegations that have come up" against him.

"There's been no use of the word 'fire' or 'terminate' or anything like it," he said. "He still has an opportunity to respond to any concerns that are coming up. ... At this point, nothing's been decided."

News of the potential firing came as the Salt Lake County district attorney said more than 100 drug-related cases from the West Valley City Police Department could now be dismissed as prosecutors continue to investigate allegations of corruption.

District Attorney Sim Gill has already dismissed 19 drug-related cases in which Cowley was the lead investigator. Both Cowley and detective Kevin Salmon are also being investigated in the fatal officer-involved shooting of Danielle Willard, 21, in November.

The embattled West Valley Police Department has been fighting to restore its public image since breaking its silence about the Willard shooting on March 21, about 4 ½ months after it occurred. Since then, the department has been faced with a flow of corruption allegations by the attorney for Melissa Kennedy, Willard's mother, as well as outside investigations by the FBI, Salt Lake police and the district attorney's office into the Willard shooting, the department's former drug unit and Cowley himself.

Now, Gill says he has been forced to expand his investigation from looking at just one officer to an internal audit of all cases filed by the West Valley police drug unit, which was disbanded in December. That means more than 100 cases are at risk of being dismissed because of credibility issues, Gill said.

"I've got some people saying, 'Well, he shouldn't be dismissing those cases.' First of all, they don't know what my obligations are," Gill said. "Sometimes we have to make sacrifices we may not want to. But the objective is not the pain it causes right now, but the objective is to retain integrity in the criminal justice system."

To protect the justice system, sometimes sacrifices are made, he said. But he noted that it isn't an easy process.

"This creates a huge problem for me. This creates a huge challenge for me. The collateral issues of which are going to be a tremendous amount of work for me and the district attorney's office. But it is both the legally and ethically right thing to do. It's something we do not have a choice in if we want to have integrity in our system.

"I cannot in good faith, as the Salt Lake County district attorney, let these cases go forward if those truths about them hold, as we suspect they will," he said.

Gill stressed Friday, as he has before, that overall, the men and women of the West Valley Police Department do a great job, but sometimes there are systemic errors that need to be corrected to restore integrity.

On Wednesday, West Valley police announced that they had asked the FBI to conduct an investigation of its drug unit to determine whether there is "systemic corruption."

"In general, we're concerned about the allegations that are out there and want to have the opportunity for an outside and independent review," acting Chief Anita Schwemmer said.

But West Valley's announcement immediately prompted a scathing letter from Kennedy's high-profile Los Angeles-based attorney, Mark Geragos, whose clients have included Michael Jackson and Winona Ryder.

The letter blasted the department for saying it wanted transparency, claiming the department already knew about the, "sea of lies, cover-ups and egregious misconduct" of its officers.

Geragos said the call for an FBI investigation was "disingenuous" and again criticized the department for allegedly failing to provide information and evidence, such as Willard's cellphone. He said information such as how many shots were fired and ballistic reports should also be made public.

"Neither the public nor her parents should be kept in the dark while your department and the city besmirch her name with outright falsehoods when you know for a fact the egregious nature of what was discovered at the scene," the letter states.

Gill has not yet released his office's report determining whether the Willard shooting was legally justified.

West Valley City Manager Wayne Pyle reiterated Friday that the city is not hiding any evidence. He also noted that Geragos "may not be exactly familiar with how contact rules work here," and said the city replied to his letter telling him that such inquiries should be directed to their attorneys and not Schwemmer.

When asked about the potential of 100 cases being dismissed, he said: "It's up to (Gill) in the end to decide whether the cases can be dismissed or not. We'll work with that and deal with the results."

Rawson also said the Fraternal Order of Police believes the FBI's investigation into West Valley City's narcotics unit "will reveal practices and customs within the unit that are inconsistent with policies and procedures associated with law enforcement within the state of Utah. However, it will also reveal that at all times, detective Cowley, at the direction of his superiors and in accordance with his training — or in this case, lack of training — acted in accordance with the standards set forth by the West Valley City Police Department."

Cowley "did the best he could with the training he received," the FOP attorney said.

"These facts will emerge when a public administrative proceeding occurs, and detective Cowley appeals the city's expected 'decision to terminate.'"

According to Rawson, West Valley police also launched an internal affairs investigation and made a "sustained finding of insubordination" after Cowley was interviewed on KSTU-TV earlier this month.

"Detective Cowley has a First Amendment right to speech, and in no way did he disobey an order to not talk about the officer-involved shooting — in fact he refused to answer questions about it. The move to terminate him for defending himself publicly, is suspect and unnecessary. A better solution is to await the outcome of the FBI's investigation before jumping to any conclusions regarding culpability."

E-mail: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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