Utah DA honored for 'courage' in probing police department's alleged missteps
Courage doesn't always mean running toward danger to keep others safe. It doesn't have to involve strapping on a badge or aiming a gun.
Sometimes, officers said at a Tuesday luncheon honoring local law enforcement, courage is having the resolve to do what's right, instead of what's easy.
That's why Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill was named law enforcement Officer of the Year by the local chapter of the International Footprint Association because of, rather than in spite of, Gill's recent dismissal of 88 state drug cases due to alleged missteps in the West Valley City Police narcotics squad.
"When there are difficulties, you have to choose a path: You can engage in the problem or avoid it completely. It's the rare person who does what's right," Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said at the luncheon. "Mr. Gill's done what's right under a great deal of scrutiny."
The District Attorney's office dismissed the cases over the last two months due to an ongoing probe into the conduct of nine West Valley City narcotics officers who have been placed on leave. Federal prosecutors this month have dismissed 10 cases involving West Valley City police.
"I'm sure [Gill] didn't relish his department digging into some of these cases that revealed some serious violations and possible criminal violations by some of the officers," said chapter President Stan Jacobson. "But he has been fair and thorough and has exhibited courage and brilliance."
The narcotics unit is currently the subject of federal, state and internal probes investigating allegations of corruption, criminal activity and mishandling of evidence. The unit was shut down and an internal audit begun after drug evidence dating back a year was found in the trunk of a detective's car following the fatal shooting of 21-year-old Danielle Willard during a November drug investigation.
As Gill took the podium Tuesday, he thanked the organization, chocked back tears and accepted the award: a gold star perched atop a brown base with a plaque that bore his name.
In his speech, Gill recalled his childhood in India and the injustices he said he witnessed without recourse or any hope of seeing them fairly resolved.
"I came from a country where I've seen indescribable violence and injustice," Gill said. "There was no rule of law."
These distant but powerful memories drive his actions, even today, he said.
Gill did not mention the West Valley City probe in his acceptance speech and has declined to explain the details of the cases.
After the ceremony, Gill acknowledged the timing of his award as "a great honor, given the circumstances."
"It really is just about doing the right thing," he said. "It's about following the Constitution."
West Valley City leaders were not at the ceremony Tuesday.
Reached later, Deputy Police Chief Mike Powell said he found it "ironic" that men "with no involvement with West Valley City or the investigations" are saying that Gill did the right thing. Powell declined to comment further, noting he was unfamiliar with the honor Gill received.
The International Footprint Association dedicates itself to supporting law enforcement and fostering relationships between agencies.
Jacobsen said he did not see a disconnect between their mission and the contentious relationship Gill has had in recent weeks with West Valley City police officers.
"I think it's really difficult for a prosecutor, someone who has worked with law enforcement all his life to realize, 'Maybe some of the bad guys are you guys,' " Jacobsen said. "It's not always easy to do the right thing."
The ceremony, which was held in Salt Lake City at the Red Lion Hotel, opened with a retired law enforcement officer leading the group of nearly 100 in a prayer. Seated in clusters of rounded tables were members of the Unified Police Department, local high school students, parents and politicians.
Eight students and one school resource officer were also given awards for their own demonstrations that "being a leader is not easy," the sheriff said.
Officer Chris Walden, the UPD's resource officer at Taylorsville High School, was honored as resource officer of the year, and one student was awarded from each participating high school: Cyprus, Kearns, Olympus, Riverton, Herriman, Skyline, Hillcrest and Taylorsville.
The students were selected by the resource officers, who teach vocational law enforcement classes in those schools, as well as handle criminal investigations on school grounds.
Eight local teens were given Student of the Year honors
Christopher Axley, Hillcrest High School
Betty Castillo, Olympus High School
Joel Kakela, Kearns High School
Esabelle Khaosanga, Skyline High School
Connor Squire, Cyprus High School
Jacob VanRoosendaal, Riverton High School
Daryllin Zitting, Taylorsville High School
Jayden Zundel, Herriman High School