A conversation with new West Valley Police Chief Lee Russo

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 28 2013 5:15 p.m. MDT

West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo speaks with reporters at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 28, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Lee Russo had already served 30 years in law enforcement and at age 49 was retired.

But he admits that at the same time he was enjoying life at home, he'd casually look through the job opening posts on the Internet. That's when he saw an opening for the police chief position in West Valley City.

"I was in a position that I didn't have to work. And that's the best way when you're looking for a job, if you're looking for one, to approach it. It was really nice to go into my interviews that way, because when I walked into my interview I didn't say what I thought they wanted to hear, I told them what I thought they needed to do," Russo said during a sit-down interview Wednesday with the Deseret News.

When West Valley officials questioned Russo, they brought up a lot of scenarios that started with "hypothetically" and asked him how he would handle them.

"I said, 'Lets drop the word hypothetical. This is a real problem you have."

That open and frank interview process with the city led to Russo being hired for the job. Tuesday was Russo's first official day as police chief of West Valley City.

He hopes that same style of opening better lines of communication within his department, the community and the media will restore the public's trust in the embattled department.

But Russo knows that won't happen in a day.

"I can say that to you today, but really it's about what I do tomorrow. So it's going to take some time for us to build that trust with one another. Same goes for out in the community and the police department. I can say we're going to change, but it's not going to be because I said we're changing. It's going to be because of the things we do today, tomorrow, next month, day in and day out."

Russo signed a five-year contract with West Valley City. But his goal is to stay much longer. He has even committed to building a house in the city and living within the community he'll serve.

Rebuilding image

The West Valley Police Department has made headlines for many of the wrong reasons during the past year. The department has been the subject of several controversies, including a fatal shooting by two officers that was ruled to be not justified, the frustrating Susan Powell case, allegations of corruption within the department's since-disbanded drug unit, and the dismissal of 124 court cases because of credibility issues.

Five officers remained on paid administrative leave Wednesday. Russo said he needs to talk with his assistant chiefs and get up to speed on all the fine details of what's been happening within the department before deciding if or when those five officers should go back to work.

"There could be, given the level of concern in this case and impact that it's created for the city and the police department, these could lead to a termination. Obviously, that would be unfortunate that somebody could lose a career. But sometimes those mistakes … that's what has to happen," Russo said. "But on the other side, if you have an officer that makes a mistake and owns up to it, or if there's something that's uncharacteristic of that officer, maybe you give that person another opportunity."

Allegations of missing money, missing evidence and officers taking "trophies" home from arrests isn't unique to West Valley City, Russo said.

"It happens. And I think in any larger department things like this happen. Officers make mistakes, officers make a misjudgment, sometimes people just become overburdened and get lax. But that's not an excuse. There's still an accountability to be had for that and we have to make sure we are doing that," he said. "If we don't do it, we quietly ratify what's going on."

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