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West Valley police chief shares findings about department at community meeting

Published: Thursday, Jan. 23 2014 10:25 p.m. MST

West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo laid out his findings since joining to the beleaguered department and asked for residents' concerns Thursday at the first of what he says will be regular community meetings.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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WEST VALLEY CITY — Chief Lee Russo wants to talk.

The head of West Valley City's police force paced casually Thursday as he laid out his findings since joining the beleaguered department, voicing concerns about how discipline is meted out in the agency, the quality of leadership throughout the department, a need for more oversight in investigations, and his hopes to heal a tainted public image.

Russo then asked what residents think about his plan to improve the department and what they're worried about.

The presentation was the first of what the chief says will be regular monthly meetings with the community, giving residents a chance to ask questions and raise concerns face-to-face, said Russo, who took over the department in August.

"It is a good police department. It's not broken. It is not full of corruption," Russo told the audience of almost 50 people, including several off-duty officers, and pledged that the department is accountable to West Valley City residents and is striving to improve.

The crowd was appreciative and attentive, and several people thanked the chief for involving the community as he seeks to inspire change.

The veteran police chief came out of retirement to secure the job in West Valley with the goal of rebuilding the department, which has been under scrutiny since 21-year-old Danielle Willard was fatally shot by two officers during a botched undercover drug operation in November 2012.

An investigation into the shooting revealed violations and mishandled evidence in the now disbanded Neighborhood Narcotics Unit and a dismissal of 124 state and federal cases.

As he listened to Russo's 10-point presentation and shared concerns about gang activity in his neighborhood, West Valley resident Dan Farr said he felt encouraged.

As the meeting ended, officers wandered among the crowd to take down information from residents such as Farr, who raised concerns about crime in the city.

"It felt so good to get that out in the open," Farr said after chatting with an officer for several minutes. "He gave me his email address, and he asked me to basically be his eyes for him. … He approached me. He actually wanted to talk to me."

Other residents asked the chief questions specific to his plans for increasing accountability and transparency on the police force, while others asked for help with drug or graffiti activity in the area.

"I think we can actually put a dent in the problem that's going on," Farr said afterward.

Russo addressed the department's problems with narcotics enforcement, which has fallen to other units. Enforcement has dropped 3 percent, but Russo announced he intends to reinstate a dedicated narcotics unit soon. One of his objectives will be attracting quality applicants for the job as the department looks to fill 20 openings, including narcotics positions.

The new narcotics unit, he said, will require increased accountability and supervision, and will be regularly inspected.

The new chief is also requiring monthly updates on all open cases, making sure investigations aren't being dragged out or forgotten, a concern that prompted an audit of all the department's sex crime cases.

All his concerns fall into three categories, Russo said: leadership at the top of the organization, accountability throughout the organization and communication within the organization.

To prove itself, the department has set a goal of being recognized by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, which only 10 percent of agencies nationwide enjoy and Russo is confident West Valley police can achieve.

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com

Twitter: McKenzieRomero

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