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.
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."
Not a 'Cops' episode
Russo does not come from a law enforcement background. But his family has a history of service. His mother was a special education teacher in an elementary school for 30 years. His sister is a nurse. His daughter is currently enrolled in the ROTC program at the University of Cincinnati.
Russo, who grew up in Delaware, was drawn to the excitement of being a police officer. He earned a degree in criminal justice at the University of Delaware and worked for the university's Public Safety Department while going through school.
He met his future wife when he was 16 and she was working the counter of a fast food restaurant. When she later moved to Maryland, he followed her and began a 20-year career with the Baltimore County Sheriff's Office. When he left, the department had more than 2,600 officers and was one of the 25 largest in the country.
Working for a department where you could quickly go from a very urban area to a suburban countryside with million-dollar homes taught Russo that you can't "police in one broad brush."
In 2004, Russo became the first outsider to become chief of the Covington Police Department in Kentucky.
"So I knew going in, just that simple fact was going to be a challenge. The chiefs, really, they grew up from patrol officer all the way through assistant chief and eventually into a chief's position. The other thing, it was a very strong union organization," he said.
Many of the former police chiefs had also served as union president at some point, he said.
When he got to Covington, Russo said there was a very strong feeling of "us versus them" in the community, and with some officers as well, Russo said, which "dumbfounded him."
"We're here to serve, not just to (arrest people)," he said. "It's not an episode of 'Cops.'"
Initially, Russo got along with the union. But when there was a change in leadership about 2009, Russo said a new president with old-school thinking was elected and did not see eye-to-eye with Russo's style of policing.
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 Russo said the vote was misleading. Out of the 300-plus union members, only about 40 showed up for that vote, he said, adding that many of those were retired officers who had never worked with Russo.
It was also at that time, he said, that the community — where Russo had worked for five years to improve relations between the police department and the public — came out in overwhelming support for him.
"What was one of the most challenging (moments of my tenure) became the most rewarding," he said of the public support.
Still, Russo said he knew it was time to move on and he and city had what he called an "amicable split" once his contract expired.
"There's always more work to be done. There's no end point that once we get the department to this level that, 'Hey, we've reached the end, we've improved.' Once you make it to that next step, as the chief executive, I need to be looking ahead and saying, 'Where's that next step?' and forecasting that. It's a continuous cycle of improvement."
While Russo admits that some of his changes in Kentucky "could have been done in a more soft manner," he believes there are two ways to make change happen: either people are going to recognize it and gravitate to it, or they aren't going to want it and it will be forced on them.1 comment on this story
"If it is a necessary change, then it gets done. And there may be some ruffled feathers, hurt feelings, some bruised egos and personalities. But if that change is for the betterment of the community, the betterment of the city, the betterment of the police department, we're going to make that change and I'll have to live with that."
Russo said if a police department gets beat up enough, the officers will start distancing themselves from the public they serve. That's something Russo said he wants to prevent in West Valley.