New West Valley chief welcomes challenge to improve embattled department

Leader had 'no confidence' vote in Kentucky but defends his actions

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 27 2013 12:00 p.m. MDT

Former acting Police Chief Anita Schwemmer shakes hands with new West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo, following a press conference Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, at City Hall in West Valley City.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

WEST VALLEY CITY — Lee Russo admits he may have ruffled a few feathers during his career, but he insists he isn't afraid of facing challenges.

As the new chief of the embattled West Valley Police Department, he will likely face many.

Mayor Mike Winder and City Manager Wayne Pyle officially introduced Russo as the city's new police chief during a news conference Tuesday before a room full of media, West Valley police officers and other city officials. The announcement ends six months of the department being without an official leader since former Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen's extended leave of absence turned into a retirement because of health issues.

Winder hopes the selection of Russo will usher in a new era for West Valley police. The department has been the subject of several controversies, starting with the frustrating case of missing mother Susan Powell and escalating with the fatal police shooting of Danielle Willard in November that was ruled unjustified by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, the disbanding of the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, and the dismissal of 124 cases in state and federal court because of credibility issues.

Russo, who spoke for nearly 30 minutes answering questions and saying many of the right things the community likely wants to hear, said he was aware of the problems West Valley City is facing when he applied for the job — and was even attracted to the challenges it presents.

"I thrive on serving communities," he said at one point, adding that he applied for the job to "help" the community.

"I know the police department has faced challenges through this last year. But I can tell you this much, from my experience, these challenges aren't just unique to this city. These types of challenges happen across the United States every day in law enforcement," he said.

"But we're not going to be defined by these challenges. We're going to break through. We're going to improve. We're going to be the police department that everybody wants and that everybody can be proud of," Russo said. "We will be better. We will serve our communities. We will do so in a professional and thorough manner. We will change. We will grow. And we will succeed, no doubt about it. It might not happen tomorrow. In fact, I guarantee it won't happen tomorrow. But we're on the right path."

Stepping into a challenging situation is nothing new for Russo. The 30-year law enforcement veteran's last job was CEO and chief of the Covington Police Department in Kentucky.

How Russo did as Covington's police chief depends on whom you ask. In 2009, the Fraternal Order of Police approved a vote of "no confidence" in the chief by a 94 percent to 6 percent margin. But members of the community seemed to give him overwhelming support.

"I stood firm on what I believed were the right challenges and the right things to do," Russo said.

But, as he expected, those who didn't agree with his changes pushed back. In 2012, Russo's contract with Covington was not extended.

A May 19, 2012, article from Cincinnati.com noted: "Lee Russo's tenure at the helm of the largest municipal police department in northern Kentucky was met with distrust from the Fraternal Order of Police and turbulence from commissioners, but he found strong support from community activists long frustrated with crime in their neighborhoods."

A May 18, 2012, article from the River City News noted: "While noticeably popular in many parts of the community, his reign was marked by contention and low morale among the rank and file within the department."

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