Fired West Valley detective files appeal citing 'incompetence' of superiors

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 25 2013 5:32 p.m. MDT

West Valley police detective Shaun Cowley is taken to an ambulance Nov. 2, 2012, after he shot and killed Danielle Willard, 21. Cowley was fired earlier this month. In an appeal filed Wednesday, he says his police superiors provided poor leadership and training.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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WEST VALLEY CITY — Former West Valley police detective Shaun Cowley filed an appeal Wednesday over his termination, strongly accusing his former superiors of lacking proper leadership.

On Sept. 12, West Valley police fired Cowley, the officer who became synonymous with the embattled Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, which came under investigation after Cowley shot and killed Danielle Willard, 21, in a botched undercover operation last November.

Although the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office determined that the shooting was not legally justified and is still considering whether to pursue criminal charges, West Valley officials said Cowley was not fired for the shooting.

An internal investigation found members of the since-disbanded drug unit misplaced or mishandled drugs and money, kept "trophies" from cases, improperly used confidential informants and used 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."

In his appeal to the West Valley Civil Service Commission, submitted by attorney Lindsay Jarvis, Cowley noted that when he was transferred from the patrol division to the narcotics division in 2010, "the West Valley City Police Department failed to provide (him) with any sort of formal training related to undercover investigations, which is significantly different than patrol work."

After the Willard shooting, investigators found evidence from an unrelated case improperly stored in the trunk of Cowley's car. That discovery launched multiple investigations and led to the dismissal of 124 state and federal criminal cases tied to the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit.

In his appeal, Cowley blamed the improperly stored evidence on a "lack of supervision, and unestablished parameters of working undercover."

In the internal investigations that followed, Cowley's attorney Lindsay Jarvis said those "were aimed at identifying detective Cowley as the sole bad apple in an effort to protect the publicly tarnished image of the West Valley City Police Department, and the complete incompetence of the police administration. Each of these investigations, directed at painting detective Cowley as the scapegoat, violated detective Cowley’s due process rights."

The appeal specifically takes aim at former Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen, claiming there is a "vast amount of evidence related to former Police Chief Buzz Nielsen’s poor decision-making skills, untruthfulness and malice towards detective Cowley in this particular case."

The West Valley Police Department has handed down lighter penalties against officers who have committed far worse violations, according to Jarvis. She also claims there is a "lengthy history of misconduct within the West Valley City Police Department … as well as active efforts by officers and members of the West Valley City Police Department’s administration to cover up and conceal the actions of its officers" by routinely giving them "time off."

Cowley and Jarvis called the timing of the detective's termination "suspicious" due to the pending decision over criminal charges by the district attorney's office and because the FBI has not completed its investigation into the drug unit.

Jarvis is requesting at least five days for Cowley's disciplinary hearing.

The fate of detective Kevin Salmon, who also shot at Willard, remains undecided, and he continues to be on paid administrative leave.

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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