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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.

She was the captain over the drug unit in 2009 and 2010, she said. But her duties did not call for direct supervision of the day-to-day operations of the unit. There were lieutenants who reported to her while she oversaw several units within the division.

Still, when the allegations of misconduct started to surface, she said it was hard because she knows all of the officers. Schwemmer admits she is disappointed with a small number of the officers but is still proud of the 190 others.

"The problems are limited to just a few officers," she said.

Schwemmer also reiterated that the problems were not systemic throughout the department.

"I do believe that the actions of these officers were independent, that these things they were doing were against the policy and training they had," she said. "It appears that most of it was just not following procedures and that it could be termed as 'laziness.' It definitely doesn't seem like anything that was done was done maliciously."

But with the review of the Willard shooting still pending from the district attorney's office as well as an FBI investigation, Schwemmer knows her department isn't out of the woods yet.

"There are still issues out there that are yet to be resolved, and until those are resolved from other agencies, I don't believe we're quite through this yet," she said.

An internal investigation uncovered problems including undisclosed amounts of missing drugs and money, officers taking "souvenirs" from crime scenes, the use of GPS trackers without warrants, improper use of confidential informants, improper handling of evidence and officers taking small amounts of cash and other items from seized vehicles.

Some plans have already been implemented for fixing the problems, such as improving the department's system for auditing. By the time a new police chief is selected this summer, Schwemmer believes many changes will have already been made.

"We are not waiting for a new chief to come in to fix these problems and resolve these issues. By the time that new chief is in place, we plan on having these issues resolved and the department moving forward," she said.

"The most broad solution to this issue is to train our officers to do what is right. That's what it comes down to. We give our officers ample training in how they should do things, what they should do, what police polices and procedures are. If they will do what is right, these issues and problems will not reoccur."

But Schwemmer said she will not be applying to be the new police chief. The mother of seven children (including stepchildren), all between the ages of 21 and 32, said her husband recently retired, and for personal reasons, she will not seek to be chief.

"The chief's job is extremely demanding and time-consuming. I would like to spend time with (my husband) and my seven children and nine grandchildren. So I don't plan on applying for the chief's position."

But Schwemmer said she does not plan on retiring, either.

"I see my role as being one in assisting the department to move forward to make those improvements," she said.

Schwemmer also believes that the next chief could be selected from within the department and still have the public's confidence.

"I absolutely believe there is someone within this department who could lead this department," she said.

The most frustrating part of the past several months has been the "misinformation" that the public has received about the depth of the problems within the department, she said. She believes being more open with the public will result in residents seeing how limited the problems really are.

Until then, she said, morale among the current officers has remained steady.

"The officers have been very good about rallying around each other and working very hard to help each other through this. And also to up their game professionally so they can show they public when they go on these calls what kind of professionalism the department has."

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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