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."

Lt. Brian Valenti, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Covington, admitted that Russo was "already behind the eight ball" when he came to Kentucky from Baltimore County, where he served for 20 years. He was the first and still only chief hired from an outside agency in the department's 125-year history.

"It was something that was unheard of at the time for our agency," Valenti told the Deseret News. "I think he was brought in as an agent of change, in our agency anyway. When you hire from within, a lot of times the ideas stay the same. I think they were looking for some different ideas from a different portion of the country, which is what they got. Some of them were positive, some of them were not. They didn't mesh well with our policing style here."

But he wished Russo luck with his new Utah job. Like in Kentucky, Valenti suspected there will be those in West Valley City who approve of the job Russo will do and others who won't.

"He'll bring change that some officers won't be used to," he said. "Quite frankly, he's going to have to change, also, because he's going to have to acclimate to that agency just like he had to here."

Covington Mayor Sherry Carran concurred that bringing an outsider to head the department rubbed some people wrong right away. But Carran, who was on the commission that hired Russo, said the vote of no confidence did not reflect on his leadership abilities.

"He did not communicate well with his own men. If I were to call out one weakness, he needed to communicate better with his own men, which was basically the Fraternal Order of Police," she said.

But Russo did establish better community policing in Covington.

"His one strength was community policing," Carran said. "He was very good at introducing a new way of policing."

Covington has a population of about 40,000. It sits on the Ohio River where Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio, are divided. Carran said most citizens believed that crime decreased while Russo was chief.

Tuesday, Russo disagreed with the assertion that he did not communicate well in Covington. Several times he mentioned that the keys to change include having open dialogues with both his department and the community. He said he plans to hold "police community forums" each month where citizens will have the opportunity to voice whatever is on their minds.

While serving as chief in Covington, Russo said he restructured work hours and overtime to improve efficiency, brought in new equipment for officers, improved training, improved police benefits, built professionalism and developed stronger relations with the community.

"I've built a career out of facing challenges and not backing down," he said. "I saw this (job) as an opportunity I thought I was particularly well matched for and excited by.

"I've sailed some rough seas. I've stepped on some toes, and that may happen here, too. But in the end, I promise you I will not back down from challenges. I will work with the community, work with the police department and we will be better and we will grow."

Russo said he was committed for the long term in West Valley City and even plans to build a new house in the city with his wife, Susan.

Winder said, "It's a great day for taking a step forward with the West Valley Police Department."

He believes the city wants a police chief who will let the people of West Valley City be the boss and not be influenced by political, media or other pressures.

Anita Schwemmer, who has been the acting chief since Nielsen's surgery, did not apply for the job so she could spend more time with her family. She will remain as one of the assistant chiefs.

Russo praised the department's administration for getting through the past several months, calling it one of the most difficult times of their careers.

"What we want to do right now is put everybody at rest, the community at rest, put the police department at rest. We're going to work again and we're going to improve," he said.

The goal now, is to rebuild the community's trust.

"It truly is an honor and a privilege to be here," Russo said.

Contributing: Whitney Evans, Andrew Adams

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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