Seven former West Valley City narcotics officers placed on leave
The same day the Salt Lake County district attorney said he would have concerns accepting new cases from some West Valley City officers, the police department announced they had placed seven more officers associated with the now-disbanded Neighborhood Narcotics Unit on leave.
Deputy Chief Mike Powell said the officers Lt. John Coyle, Sgt. Michael Johnson, and detectives Ricardo Franco, Sean McCarthy, Rafael Frausto, Chris Smith and Barbara Lund were placed on paid administrative leave effective Wednesday. The seven now join colleagues Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon, who are already on leave in connection with the fatal shooting of 21-year-old Danielle Willard during a November drug investigation.
While all the officers were associated with the unit at one time, Powell said six of the seven new officers on paid leave were members of the unit in December when it was disbanded by Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen, who retired in March due to health problems.
The West Valley City Police Department is under investigation by the FBI for: the fatal shooting of Willard; allegations of criminal conduct by Cowley; and allegations of corruption within the narcotics squad.
"As it stands, we have placed those who have previously worked in the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit on leave," Powell said. He did not say what in particular prompted the officers to be placed on leave, other than to note it was part of the department's normal procedures during such investigations.
The news comes less than a week after West Valley City Manager Wayne Pyle announced that an internal audit of the Police Department's narcotics unit had unearthed a number of problems, including mishandling of evidence, booking evidence without proper documentation as well as the possibility of missing drugs and money. Pyle also said that seized items were improperly accounted for, such as loose change or a CD in a seized vehicle, and that officers kept "trophies" from drug busts for themselves and for use as training aids.
The officers were placed on leave two days after District Attorney Sim Gill announced his office had tossed another 69 criminal cases increasing the total to 88 state cases and eight federal and revealed that the probe into mishandled cases had expanded to include all members of the city's now-defunct narcotics unit.
Gill couldn't go into why the state cases have been targeted because of the ongoing investigation. But he said that they all involve "the conduct of these [the narcotics unit] officers." He did not identify those officers other than to note it would be unfair to implicate all the 183 officers in the department for the conduct of a few.
On Wednesday, Gill said his office would be carefully screening cases brought forward by certain officers.
"The concerns have not abated," he said. "The rationale that has led to the dismissal of some of these cases has not been abated. We would seriously consider any fresh cases."
He also noted his office continues to review cases to determine if any additional dismissals would be appropriate.
"Some of these cases we're dismissing because we have to," he said. "But there are some other cases that we maybe can salvage that we're going to [prosecute]. Those cases that I can salvage, [it is] my job to salvage those cases and to aggressively fight for those cases."
Powell said he hopes people will continue to have trust and confidence in the police department.
"We have all the confidence in this department," he said. "We have a very dedicated workforce here that loves the work they do and enjoys working with the community that we serve and has the utmost integrity."
West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder said, "I appreciate the thorough investigations going on to identify and correct any impropriety and support this and other steps being taken as we work through this."
Michael McFall contributed to this story.