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Embattled detective stored evidence in his trunk, ex-chief says

Review panel holds off talking to West Valley officer

Published: Monday, Aug. 31 2015 4:20 p.m. MDT

West Valley police detective Shaun Cowley is taken to an ambulance by paramedics shortly after his involvement in the shooting death of Danielle Willard, 21, on Nov. 2, 2012. Cowley and his department's former drug unit is the focus of multiple investigations. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) West Valley police detective Shaun Cowley is taken to an ambulance by paramedics shortly after his involvement in the shooting death of Danielle Willard, 21, on Nov. 2, 2012. Cowley and his department's former drug unit is the focus of multiple investigations. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

WEST VALLEY CITY — The city's citizen review panel will not address the case of embattled West Valley police officer Shaun Cowley for now.

"In an effort to weigh all possible options at this time, the West Valley City Police Department decided to not have the Professional Standards Review Board review pending employment actions regarding detective Shaun Cowley at today's meeting," the department said Thursday in a brief prepared statement.

Cowley is the focus of multiple investigations, which apparently began after evidence was found in the trunk of his car contrary to protocol, according to the detective's former chief.

The decision not to have Cowley appear before the board comes just two days after Cowley's attorney and the attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police both made pleas to the West Valley City Council to hold off taking any action against Cowley until multiple investigations, as well as proposed changes to the review board, are completed.

Cowley is one of two officers who were involved in the fatal officer-involved shooting of Danielle Willard, 21, in November. Since that incident, allegations of corruption have been levied against the department's former Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, which was disbanded in December.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill dismissed 19 drug-related criminal cases in which Cowley was the lead investigator and said as many as 100 more charges may be dropped. Gill said the dismissals were because of credibility issues. The U.S. Attorney's Office also dismissed eight drug-related cases this week that had been investigated by West Valley police.

When contacted at his home Thursday, recently retired West Valley Police Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen said he had been instructed by attorneys not to talk about the Cowley case. But the former chief told KUTV Wednesday that the investigations began when officers discovered old evidence from other cases in the trunk of Cowley's car — evidence that was supposed to be in the department's evidence room.

The evidence — small amounts of drugs and drug paraphernalia — was discovered following the Willard shooting when searches of Willard's car and Cowley's car were conducted, per protocol, Nielsen said.

"We came across some pieces of evidence that were not related. They were from some previous couple of drug cases from about a year prior, I think," he told KUTV. "I shut down the narc unit and I went back and wanted to do an (internal) audit for all the cases for the past three years, and since I was doing that, I wanted to check to see if there were any other problems so we did the whole narcotics unit."

The former chief said he believes Cowley committed what he called a procedural violation and not a criminal violation. He said the detective had also done "a lot of good work" for the department.

He admitted he was surprised at how much media attention West Valley police have recently received, but said the department will come out on top in the end. "We're going to be fine in the respect that we don't have a systemic problem, we have good officers, good detectives," he told the station.

Investigations into the shooting and the drug unit are currently ongoing by the West Valley Police Department, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, the Salt Lake City Police Department and the FBI.

Lindsay Jarvis, Cowley's attorney, and Bret Rawson, the legal counsel for the Fraternal Order of Police, said they fear Cowley is being set up to be the scapegoat in the police department's public image problem. They claim the detective was simply conducting investigations the way he had been instructed by his superiors.

The attorneys also said they believe the department is planning on firing Cowley and his appearance before the citizen review board would be part of that process.

It was also revealed this week that the FBI conducted another investigation into West Valley police in 2012. West Valley Deputy Police Chief Mike Powell said Thursday that that investigation was "completely" unrelated to any of the current issues and was determined to be "unfounded." Powell would not discuss the nature of the 2012 investigation, but noted that every complaint is looked at, he said, and working with federal agencies is not uncommon.

E-mail: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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