WEST VALLEY CITY — West Valley Mayor Mike Winder said a planned nationwide search for a new police chief may also lead to a chance to clean house.
"Some have said, 'Why don't you clean house from the top down?' In essence, we have that opportunity now to take a fresh look at the top leadership in the police department," he said.
"I think we have an opportunity to set a new tone with a new chief of police and I'm really excited about that."
Winder's comments were made shortly before his city manager called the press together to try and clear up what he said are "false accusations, rumors and misinformation" regarding the recent scrutiny of the city's police department.
"I'm actually very satisfied with how our protocols have worked from an investigatory standpoint," said West Valley City Manager Wayne Pyle. The only breakdown, he said, has been associated with communication and the release of information to the public.
Pyle admits there is room for improvement.
He said the agency has at least 190 officers and handles more than 100,000 calls each year, "ranging from welfare checks to having to decide whether to use deadly force." With that volume of calls, "we're going to have issues."
"The vast majority of cases are handled with professionalism, but we do have problems that arise," Pyle said, adding that current policy allows for checks and balances involving personnel both inside and outside of the department.
After an unusually long nearly five-month investigation, West Valley police on Wednesday began meeting with Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill to discuss their findings involving the shooting death of Danielle Willard, 21. The discussions to determine whether two officers were justified in killing her were scheduled to continue on Thursday.
California-based attorney Mark Geragos, hired by Willard's mother, has accused the department of destroying evidence and withholding evidence and information in the case. He said the investigation has "the earmarks of a police coverup" and referred to a "mysterious fire" that destroyed video that allegedly recorded the shooting.
Pyle said the accusations are "completely false." While he wouldn't say what evidence police have in the case, he said a fire at a parking structure near where Willard was killed destroyed some surveillance equipment two or three weeks after the incident, but insisted it had no effect on the investigation or evidence that might have been taken from there.
He said "nothing was lost or destroyed" in a fire.
Looking back, Pyle said he would have "done things differently" at the beginning of the case, releasing more information to the public. The investigation, however, is now past the point of such transparency, he said.
The city manager was at the scene of the shooting for a short time on the day it happened, Nov. 2, and said he "also didn't understand the placement of certain things or how the investigation was playing out." But that sort of confusion comes with the natural progression of sorting out the aspects of any crime scene, he said.
Evidence Geragos has asked for, including Willard's two cellphones and her vehicle, which were confiscated the day of the shooting, will remain as evidence in the case and, per legal rules, won't be dispersed to the family until the case is closed. Pyle said that as an attorney, Geragos "should know the rules of evidence."
"As a police department, our job is to find facts," acting Police Chief Anita Schwemmer said in a letter addressed to Geragos. "Investigators from the West Valley City Police Department and the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office have worked exhaustively to uncover all the facts surrounding this incident."
She said nothing is being omitted from the completed investigation.
Detective Shaun Cowley, one of the officers who shot Willard, is also the focus of another investigation by Gill. Cowley was the lead investigator in 19 criminal cases, mostly drug-related, that Gill recently dismissed because of credibility issues.
Winder said Wednesday he is confident the police department is "doing a great job," but an upcoming 60-day search for a new police chief for the department will be a "great opportunity to take a fresh look at the department."
The top police job will be posted beginning in April. He expects to have it filled by the end of summer.
Former Police Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen retired in early March after 33 years of service, citing extensive surgery and a need for time to recuperate.
Pyle said problems within the department may have been aggravated by Nielsen's long-term health issues, but said the former chief had a "long and storied, as well as dedicated career" with the city.
On Tuesday, Winder asked the City Council to consider revamping efficiencies of the force's independent Professional Standards Review Board, which he said serves as the "third-party eyes and ears of the people." He said it is critical that the public has trust in law enforcement.
"I fear the pendulum has swung too far to being close-lipped and secret," he said. "We need to move cases along as quickly as possible."
Agency trust has deteriorated somewhat since the beginning of the complex case involving missing Utah mother Susan Cox Powell, who was last seen in Dec. 6, 2009. Little information about the case has been released from West Valley City, with most information coming from investigators in Washington state, where Josh Powell murdered his two sons and killed himself.
Winder said the Powell case will be "winding down" in the coming months. "There are only so many leads you can pursue until you hit dead end," he said, adding that his police force is "close" to releasing more information about the case to the public.
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