The West Valley City Civil Service Commission voted Thursday to close to the public the appeal hearing for former police Lt. John Coyle, who headed the discredited and now-defunct Neighborhood Narcotics Unit.
But Thursday evening, the attorneys representing the family 21-year-old Danielle Willard, who was shot and killed in November 2012 by a West Valley City officer who was a member of the narcotics unit, announced they would be seeking a temporary restraining order in 3rd District Court. They said they had requested an emergency hearing Friday to prevent the closure of the hearing to the public.
Meanwhile, questions surfaced about whether the commission violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by apparently having an impromptu closed meeting an hour before their posted meeting time to deliberate Thursday’s agenda items.
In closing Coyle’s appeal hearing, which is scheduled to begin Monday, the commission cited a section of the Utah Open Meetings Act that, they contend, allows closure of a hearing dealing with the character and competency of an employee.
The closure came despite objections from The Salt Lake Tribune, attorneys representing the family of Willard and West Valley City itself.
“I don’t understand why [the hearing] would be closed,” said Jeff Hunt, a Salt Lake City First Amendment and media attorney, who is not involved in the Coyle matter. “There’s well established law in that the information-gathering phase is not to be closed. The hearing itself should be open because it doesn’t concern the character and competence, it’s just determining what happened.”
Aside from there being a number of cases that have set a precedent for keeping such hearings open, Hunt said he doesn’t think, as a matter of public policy, “that this should be closed, so people can know what happened.”
But Hunt said the commissioners are allowed to close the deliberative phase of the hearing, where they decide what to do about Coyle, who is appealing a demotion resulting from his actions as head of the now-disbanded Neighborhood Narcotics Unit.
Police have never publicly said to what rank Coyle was demoted.
In addition to the death of Willard during an alleged drug bust — an officer-involved shooting that was deemed unjustified by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill — a city-led probe unearthed a number of problems with the narcotics unit, including mishandling of evidence, booking evidence without proper documentation, as well as the possibility of missing drugs and money.
The probe also found that items, such as loose change or a CD in a seized vehicle, were improperly accounted for and that officers kept “trophies” from drug busts for themselves and for use as training aids. Coyle has been named as a defendant in at least one civil lawsuit alleging police misconduct.
As a result of the probe, state and federal prosecutors have tossed more than 120 cases linked to the narcotics unit.
West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo said Thursday that the city had taken the stance that Coyle’s hearing should be open to the public.
“We’re not hiding anything here,” Russo said, adding that, ultimately, any decision to close the hearing was up to the independent commission.
Hunt said that in addition to closing next week’s hearing, the commission also may have violated the state’s Open Meeting Act by reportedly starting Thursday’s meeting in closed session — prior to the posted meeting time of 8 a.m. — to deliberate the issues on the agenda.
The members of the three-person commission — chaired by Dianne Niebuhr — arrived at the meeting room about 8:20 a.m., apologized for their “deliberations” going long and took a no-discussion public vote on the agenda items before adjourning.
Hunt said that if the commission met before the scheduled time, they violated the law. He called it “very irregular.”
“The whole purpose of the agenda [posting] requirement is to let people know when to be there,” he said.
Hunt said Utah law requires that all public meetings start in open session at the posted time. Members of the government board then have to publicly vote to go into closed session and then must re-adjourn before they conclude the meeting.
West Valley City spokesman Samuel Johnson said the city’s opinion on whether the Open Meeting Act was violated “is not relevant because this is an independent board with an independent attorney who handled it the way they saw fit.”
The city referred comment to the commission’s independent lawyer, Ryan Loose, who also works for South Jordan City. Loose did not return a call for comment.
During Thursday’s meeting, commissioners asked city representatives for a list of those expected to attend Coyle’s hearing, saying some people, including Coyle’s wife, might be allowed into the otherwise closed hearing.
Michael O’Brien, who serves as an attorney for The Salt Tribune, said it would be “odd” for the commission to allow Coyle’s wife to attend while prohibiting the public.
“Unless they are parties to the case, I think families are just members of the public like you and me,” O’Brien said. “It seems very odd to close the hearing to some members of the public, but not others. Public bodies should not be allowed to pick and choose which members of the public get to attend a governmental hearing.”
Attorneys with the Los Angeles firm Geragos & Geragos, who represent Willard’s family, argued in a written brief that to close the hearing would “extend the veil of secrecy that the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit operated under.” They cited a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling indicating that an employee’s conduct is not protected by the right of confidentiality.
“The people of West Valley City deserve to have access to former Lt. Coyle’s hearing before you,” attorney Mark Geragos wrote. “In light of the serious allegations surrounding his former unit, including the unjustified shooting of the unarmed Danielle Willard, closure of this hearing to the press and public would be contrary to the commission’s expressed goal of ensuring that West Valley City police officers ‘meet the high standards that are expected of them.’ ”
“This community is depending on the commission not to drive into the shadows the conduct that has been alleged,” Geragos wrote.
The Tribune, in a separate written motion, argued that the hearing should be public and that the commission’s own rules — which the city provided upon receipt of an open-records request — did not allow for a closure.
The Tribune argued it was in the public’s interest to keep such proceedings open, considering the seriousness of the allegations against the narcotics unit and since the integrity of the department was at stake.
The Tribune also noted that other Utah entities have made civil service hearings public — including the Utah Highway Patrol’s hearing involving former trooper Lisa Steed before a state commission; Salt Lake City police union leader Tom Gallegos’ hearing before Salt Lake City civil service commission; and Deputy Salt Lake County District Attorney Kent Morgan’s hearing before Salt Lake County’s Career Service Council.
In addition, the paper pointed out that, since November, West Valley City’s commission has held twounrelated appeals hearings that were public.
All previous commission proceedings involving Coyle have been public.