With officer Cowley, the pattern of behavior and the nature of the violations were so egregious that certainly I felt a decision of termination was warranted. —West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo
WEST VALLEY CITY — Embattled detective Shaun Cowley was fired from the police force Thursday, just two weeks after the department got a new chief.
Cowley was a member of the now disbanded Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, which came under investigation after Cowley shot and killed 21-year-old Danielle Willard in a botched undercover operation last November.
Accusations against officers in the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit included misplaced or mishandled drugs and money, keeping trophies from cases, improper use of confidential informants and using GPS tracking on vehicles without a warrant.
"With officer Cowley, the pattern of behavior and the nature of the violations were so egregious that certainly I felt a decision of termination was warranted," new West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo said. "This was not a simple mistake."
But Cowley's dismissal was not connected to his role in Willard's death, a shooting the Salt Lake County District Attorney determined was not justified.
While police department and city officials were confident minor problems with some officers could be remedied with a reprimand, counseling and additional training, Russo said the bulk of the unit's violations traced back to Cowley.
As of Thursday, some drugs and money taken as evidence by the unit were still missing, though Russo wouldn't say how much.
"I wouldn't describe it as a large quantity, but we're missing evidence," he said, adding that he is unsure whether the missing drugs and money will be recovered. "We may never know exactly what happened."
Whether it's "one gram or one kilo," Russo said any amount of missing evidence is unacceptable.
The new chief said Cowley's actions undermined investigations, referring to the more than 120 criminal cases that were dismissed by the district attorney earlier this year. The former detective also showed a "pattern of behavior" that likely couldn't be corrected through reprimand and training, he said.
Russo, who was announced as chief of the troubled police department Aug. 27, said reviewing Cowley's case was a priority from his first day. He made his support for terminating Cowley known, but the decision ultimately fell to city officials, City Manager Wayne Pyle and an assistant chief.
The department notified Cowley of his termination Thursday. Hours later, Cowley's attorney released a letter announcing the 10-year law enforcement veteran will "aggressively appeal" the department's decision. He has five days to do so.
Lindsay Jarvis, Cowley's attorney, called his firing "a facade" and "cowardly," accusing the city of presenting the officer as a scapegoat while problems in the department are rooted in poor management.
"Rather than simply admitting and addressing issues related to poor police administration, the department has chosen to identify detective Cowley — an officer — as its scapegoat," Jarvis said. "Fortunately, a termination hearing will finally allow detective Cowley an opportunity to address the allegations against him, question members of the police administration under oath, as well as (confront) police supervisors about unethical, illegal and dishonest practices."
Jarvis said Cowley was notified of the decision by email, and the media was alerted a half-hour later.
After the termination was announced Thursday, Russo said dismissing Cowley was an important step in restoring the public's trust after months of turmoil, something that can only be proven in the way the department conducts itself from day to day.
"Here we have a situation, unfortunately, where a member of the department was acting inappropriately and accountability was affixed to that," Russo said. "The other officers that go out there, they have to wear the tarnish that this brings, but it doesn't diminish the great things that they do every day."
Jarvis refuted Russo's claim and invited the media and the public to observe Cowley's termination hearing for themselves.
"Rather than restoring public trust, the public will ultimately be outraged that city leaders and members of the West Valley City Police Department administration allowed such behaviors to take place, and at times, actively engaged in covering them up," Jarvis said.
Four officers from the disbanded Neighborhood Narcotics Unit — Chris Smith, Rafael Frausto, Barbara Lund and Sean McCarthy — have returned to full duty, city officials said. Two others, officer Ricardo Franco and Sgt. Michael Johnson, face suspensions. Lt. John Coyle is currently appealing disciplinary action, according to a news release.
The fate of detective Kevin Salmon, who also shot at Willard, remains undecided, and he continues to be on paid administrative leave.
In the meantime, Russo said he is unsure whether the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit will be re-established.
Officers returning from that unit have been reassigned, and the department will focus on community service and policing with the goal of reducing crime and improving quality of life in Utah's second-largest city, he said. Narcotics investigations will be part of that, Russo said.
"During the reduction of force we've experienced over the economy in the last couple of years, that area has suffered," the new chief said. "That has disengaged us and separated us from our community, so I want to be sure we get back out, that we are re-engaged, that we have personnel that are dealing with residents and their problems."