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West Valley police stole money, 'trophies,' maybe drugs, audit finds

Published: Friday, April 12 2013 4:25 p.m. MDT

Results of an internal audit released Friday showed that narcotics officers from the West Valley Police Department stole money and other items from vehicles they seized and may have taken drugs and money confiscated during arrests. Shaun Cowley, at left, is one of two detectives in the drug unit on administrative leave.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — Narcotics officers from the West Valley Police Department stole money and other items from vehicles they seized and may have taken drugs and money confiscated during arrests, an internal audit found.

"We may have missing drugs and money that are associated with this investigation," West Valley City Manager Wayne Pyle said Friday.

The announcement of six "areas of potential problems" came as the embattled police department has faced criticism for several weeks over corruption allegations — particularly within the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, which was disbanded in December.

The findings are from the department's internal audit and will now be shared with the FBI and Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office to be used as part of their respective investigations. 

Pyle would not provide the names of officers who may be connected to the problems or amounts of drugs or money that may be missing, citing the ongoing investigations. He was also not specific about the frequency of the violations.

Six officers and two supervisors worked in the drug unit, according to acting Police Chief Anita Schwemmer. Only two of them are on administrative leave — detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon, who were involved in the fatal shooting of Danielle Willard on Nov. 2, 2012, during an undercover drug operation.

"It was mostly one or two officers that had the issues," Schwemmer said.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said even one of these issues would be cause for alarm, and as the count adds up, they are "immensely troubling collectively." 

The internal investigation began shortly after that shooting when investigators discovered evidence from an unrelated case in the trunk of Cowley's police car, Schwemmer said, adding that the subsequent violations that were discovered "aren't directly related to the Willard investigation."

Pyle said the six areas of concern discovered from the internal audit include:

• Improper evidence handling, including broken chains of custody, improper logging of evidence and transporting evidence contrary to procedure. Pyle called such procedural infractions "common" within the unit.

• Missing cash and drugs from criminal cases that should have been placed in evidence lockers. "We are seeing that has happened in one or two instances" out of hundreds of cases that were audited, Pyle said.

Schwemmer added: "We're not commenting on whether they're still missing or not." 

• Detectives "improperly taking small amounts of money and items from seized vehicles," including CDs, loose change and small personal items. Pyle said such actions "may be a common problem." Though the value of missing items doesn't add up to much, the fact that they were unaccounted for is a "serious issue," Pyle said.

• Officers collecting "trophies, trinkets or souvenirs" from narcotics cases, including candles, necklaces and "small items that are commonly associated with the drug trafficking culture." Such items may also have been used as training aids for other officers and the public, he said.

• Improper use of confidential informants, including using immigrants in the country illegally as informants. The problems regarded improper file keeping about the informants, and were not an issue of their safety.

• Improper use of GPS trackers in violation of law and internal procedures on "a couple of occasions." This includes using GPS trackers without warrants, Pyle said. 

The violations had apparently been occurring for some time.

“Some of these problems as we did our audit were up to two years ago within this particular unit,” Schwemmer said.

The acting chief maintained that such problems were contained within the narcotics unit, although other departments have also been reviewed internally, including the Special Investigations Unit.

As the investigation developed, Gill dismissed 19 criminal drug cases connected to Cowley and said as many as 100 more cases could be dismissed. Eight federal cases from West Valley police were also dismissed Tuesday by the U.S. District Attorney's Office.

As FBI, West Valley police and the district attorney's office continue to investigate, Gill said he hopes other cases won't be compromised, but the issues look to have a "fairly severe and dramatic impact" on cases already in the system.

It is still unknown whether officers in the narcotics unit will face criminal charges, he said.

Gill expressed concern about the department's ability to serve the community should more problems be discovered.

"I think it is currently devastating to West Valley City and its community and law enforcement agency," he said. "I don't think the community or the agency can survive an expansion of this scope, and I don't think anyone wants it to."

Gill said Friday that anyone who would imply such violations were minor underplays the seriousness of the officers' actions.

"There are people out there who may not find the measure of justice they deserve because we may end up having to dismiss some cases with no fault of these victims out there, and certainly no fault of our community," he said.

In response to accusations that the cause of the narcotics unit's problems lies with its leadership, Schwemmer asserted her confidence in the department's commanders.

The officers' transgressions discussed Friday were outside written department policy and the officers' training, Schwemmer said. 

Pyle expressed his disappointment at the problems revealed in the department's internal audit, simultaneously praising the review processes that discovered them. 

"When we discover problems, we take care of those problems," he said. "It's happened in the past and, unfortunately, will probably happen again, humans being humans." 

E-mail: mromero@deseretnews.com

Twitter: McKenzieRomero

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