WEST VALLEY CITY — West Valley police want to send a message to potential drug dealers and users: It's not open season in their city.
"Law enforcement has not been suspended. The West Valley Police Department is very actively engaged in the purpose we were established, to serve and protect the community," said Deputy Chief Mike Powell. "We're dealing with a set of circumstances. Some concerns have come up and we're dealing with those concerns. It doesn't affect all activities.
"Does that mean drug enforcement is not taking place? No, not at all."
Powell's comments come as the department announced late Wednesday that seven additional officers who had worked as part of the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit — two supervisors and five detectives — have been placed on leave pending the outcome of several investigations into the now-disbanded unit. That brings the total number of officers on leave from the narcotics unit to nine.
But Thursday, West Valley City Manager Wayne Pyle said placing the officers on paid leave was more for the protection of both the department's and the officers' interests, and should not be taken as a sign that they are necessarily guilty of wrongdoing.
"Nothing should be read into that more than what is the case right now. They are still part of the department, they are still paid employees. They have simply been taken out of their duties right now, and it is a procedural extension of the process when you have an investigation going on," he said.
Lt. John Coyle, Sgt. Michael Johnson, and detectives Ricardo Franco, Sean McCarthy, Rafael Frausto, Chris Smith and Barbara Lund are the additional officers placed on leave. Detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon have been on paid leave since November following the fatal officer-involved shooting of 21-year-old Danielle Willard during an undercover drug investigation they conducted.
It was because of items of evidence found in Cowley's car trunk that did not involve the Willard case that prompted West Valley police to shut down the narcotics unit in December.
In the weeks and months that followed, the internal investigation expanded to include separate investigations by the Salt Lake City Police Department, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office and the FBI.
West Valley officials announced last week that an internal investigation had uncovered several disturbing "areas of potential problems" within the narcotics unit. The problems included undisclosed amounts of missing drugs and money, small amounts of cash and other items taken from the seized vehicles, officers taking "trophies, trinkets or souvenirs" from drug-related crime scenes, officers using GPS trackers without first securing a warrant, among other allegations.
Pyle said Thursday the city "makes no bones" that the problems are serious. But he doesn't believe the officers set out to intentionally break any law.
"Just from my limited, personal knowledge from a summary and a reporting standpoint of where the investigations are, I don't believe that's the case. I could be proven wrong. There could still be criminal charges that arise out of this. But I believe, in my mind, this is more of a situation of rushing and some sloppiness and carelessness that wasn't taken care of," he said.
For example, Pyle isn't sure the items taken from seized vehicles were actually pocketed by officers or if the officers simply didn't fill out the right paperwork. As for the warrant-less GPS trackers, Pyle said those instances were "pretty rare." And as for the missing drugs and money, which were still unaccounted for as of Thursday, Pyle said he doesn't know if it was theft, bad bookkeeping or something else.
He declined to comment on the quantity of the missing drugs and money.
The district attorney has dismissed 88 pending criminal cases all linked to the narcotics unit because of credibility issues while the federal government has dismissed eight cases.
Powell admitted that being down nine officers does create some challenges for the department. But other officers have been reassigned to different duties for emergency responses, and the department has "taken whatever measures are necessary" to ensure that all priority calls are responded to as quickly as before.
But Powell said it is important for both the public and criminals to know that just because the unit has been suspended and investigations are underway, that does not mean drug dealers will be getting a free pass in the city.
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