8 federal cases involving embattled West Valley police dismissed

City Council hears proposals to change citizen review board

Published: Wednesday, April 10 2013 4:25 p.m. MDT

West Valley police detective Shaun Cowley sits on the ground as he is checked out by paramedics Nov. 2, 2012, after he and another detective shot and killed a woman during an undercover drug investigation. Cowley and the department are the focus of investigations by the FBI and the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — More criminal cases from the West Valley City Police Department's former Neighborhood Narcotics Unit have been dismissed — this time in federal court.

The U.S. Attorney's Office confirmed that it will no longer prosecute eight federal court cases.

"These motions (to dismiss), which have been granted by the court, were filed in the interests of justice," spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch said in a prepared statement.

Federal prosecutors will review other cases to determine if additional action is necessary.

"The U.S. Attorney's Office is aware of the recent allegations involving the West Valley City Police Department's Neighborhood Narcotics Unit. We are reviewing our cases and are taking appropriate action. This review will continue," Rydalch said.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office previously dismissed 19 drug-related criminal cases from West Valley police in state court because of credibility issues. District Attorney Sim Gill said up to 100 more criminal cases could potentially be dismissed as investigations into the department continue.

West Valley police detective Shaun Cowley was the lead investigator in all of those 19 cases.

The U.S. Attorney's Office did not say which cases it had dismissed or if they were tied to a single officer or unit. Federal charges can be filed in drug cases if firearms are involved, if the quantity of drugs is above a certain level, or if the bust is part of a larger drug network.

The announcement came Tuesday night as the West Valley City Council discussed revamping its Professional Standards Review Board, a citizens review board that investigates police matters, following the fallout of a public relations crisis involving its embattled police department.

At Tuesday's meeting, City Manager Wayne Pyle presented the City Council with his proposal for changes to the review board. He noted, however, that the board has been functioning as it was intended.

"The question is do we want to have further public exposure or transparency to the process?" he said.

In his report to the council, Pyle compared West Valley's review board with citizen review panels in Salt Lake City, Boise, Boston and Las Vegas. Salt Lake City is the only review board of the five that holds public hearings.

Among his recommendations, Pyle said the West Valley Police Department should: no longer be allowed to nominate and interview perspective board members to the independent citizen review board, require more training of board members, publicize the actions of the board more broadly, and codify the board's rules, procedures and jurisdiction.

On Wednesday, West Valley Mayor Mike Winder said investigations by the FBI and the district attorney into the former drug unit, in addition to an internal investigation, are ongoing.

"There's some processes out of place there, and we need to get to the bottom of what exactly they are and correct them as quickly as possible," he said. "We will get to the bottom of it and fix whatever needs to be fixed there.

"We're trusted as elected officials and we are determined to get to the bottom, whether it be corruption, or processes and procedures that are out of place, but clearly something is amiss as we see these cases dropped," Winder said.

Thousands of drug cases are prosecuted every year, he noted. But if everything isn't "followed by the book, one little slip up can make it so it can't be prosecuted."

Cowley's attorney, Lindsay Jarvis, and the legal counsel for the Fraternal Order of Police, Bret Rawson, also attended Tuesday's City Council meeting.

Cowley and detective Kevin Salmon have been on paid administrative leave since November when they shot and killed 21-year-old Danielle Willard during an undercover drug investigation.

Cowley's attorneys say he has been put on notice that he will likely be fired by the department. Both Jarvis and Rawson asked the council to hold off making any decisions until the FBI completes its review of the department and its narcotics unit, which was disbanded in December.

Jarvis said her client's case was scheduled to go before the Professional Standards Review Board on Thursday. She asked the council to wait, however, until the proposed changes to the board are implemented.

"Now is the time to start doing things in the way it is supposed to be done," she said.

Rawson concurred that it was premature to take any action against Cowley before the FBI completes its investigation. The FBI was asked by both the department and Gill to investigate the department's drug unit to determine if there was "systematic corruption."

Rawson has previously said that Cowley is being set up to be West Valley's scapegoat, and that the detective was simply conducting investigations the way he had been instructed by his superiors.

The city is "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," he said.

Pyle stressed that no decision about Cowley's employment status has been made. Even if a recommendation had been made, he said, it still has several steps to go through before it would be approved.

The council will take about two weeks to look over the proposed changes to the citizen review board before deciding whether to approve it.

West Valley also received criticism Tuesday night from one of its own. Phil Conder, a longtime resident and a member of the city's Planning Commission, voiced his displeasure with the police department and called for the resignations of Pyle and acting Chief Anita Schwemmer.

"It is very disconcerting to me that so much positive that is happening in West Valley City can be offset by actions of our police department," he said. "My personal interaction tells me there are systemic problems in the West Valley City Police Department and the problems are condoned at the highest levels. ... I and many other have lost confidence in our police force."

Conder reportedly had had a run-in with West Valley police and was not pleased with the end result, even after it went through the review process. Pyle called Conder's recounting of the situation "unfair and incorrect."

Winder said Wednesday that the city has officially opened the process of finding a new police chief. Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen retired in March after 33 years of police service after undergoing back surgery.

Winder said the city will be collecting the names of potential candidates for 60 days and start whittling down the pool down after that. Applications will be accepted both from officers within the department, in Utah and outside the state, he said.

A new chief, the mayor said, is expected to add "fresh leadership" and bring a "new tone" to the department.

E-mail: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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