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West Valley chief confident department will be OK, but knows it's not out of woods yet

Anita Schwemmer won't throw her hat in ring to be new leader

Published: Wednesday, May 8 2013 9:45 p.m. MDT

West Valley City interim Police Chief Anita Schwemmer speaks to the media in West Valley City Wednesday, May 8, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — Anita Schwemmer knew that storm clouds were on the horizon.

"We did see this coming. We already knew that there were issues and problems because of the internal audits and the things that we do to police our own department," the interim chief of the embattled West Valley Police Department told the Deseret News Wednesday.

Despite knowing that the department would likely soon be under public scrutiny because of the actions of a few officers, when West Valley officials informed Schwemmer that Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen was not coming back and asked if she would continue as acting chief until a new one could be hired, she agreed. Schwemmer had been filling in for Nielsen while he was recovering from back surgery. When he realized the recovery time would be more than he expected, he decided to retire.

What no one likely could have predicted, however, was the depth of the problems that would soon be uncovered. As of Wednesday, 124 state and federal cases tied to the department's Neighborhood Narcotics Unit have been dismissed because prosecutors felt there was not longer a likelihood of obtaining convictions in court due to credibility issues.

The microscope that has been on the disbanded drug unit for the past seven months began with the fatal officer-involved shooting of Danielle Willard, 21. The investigation into her death started the chain of events that put the police department in the position it is in today.

Schwemmer, a mathematics and computer science major in college who started her career in law enforcement much later than the average officer, was asked to lead the department during a critical point in how it responded to its public black eye.

But the 20-year veteran, who has spent her entire career with West Valley City and worked with nearly every division within the force, said she was ready to take on the challenge.

"I've been prepared very well. It's not like they just pulled me off the street and dumped me into the job of being acting chief. I've been very well-prepared for this position and have had a lot of experience and have been given the opportunities that would allow me to take this position," she said.

Schwemmer believes she has learned skills, even when she wasn't a police officer, that are helping her today.

She grew up in Orange County, Calif., and had always wanted to be a police officer. But her father didn't like the idea.

"I got the, 'No daughter of mine is going to be a cop' speech when I was in high school. And I subsequently majored in mathematics in college."

Schwemmer went to BYU and worked an internship with McDonnell Douglas. But she found herself not feeling fulfilled by her career choice.

"It was kind of boring sitting in the office staring at a computer screen all day debugging codes. I decided that's not what I wanted to do all day, every day," she said.

At age 34, after spending some time being a stay-at-home mom and even working part time as West Jordan animal control officer, Schwemmer told a friend who was a Salt Lake City police officer that she had always wanted to try a career in law enforcement. That friend told her it was never too late and encouraged her to go through the training.

"I really wanted to be able to serve my neighbors and friends and family. And I wanted to contribute back to community. And I felt that law enforcement was a good way to do that," she said.

Schwemmer completed Peace Officer Standards and Training and soon became a certified law enforcer. She worked her way up the ranks of the West Valley Police Department and for the past four years has been part of its command staff.

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