Cop scandals are like wildfires. They start a lot faster than they end. So West Valley City police Chief Lee Russo gets high marks for working to douse his city’s flames.
Seven months ago Russo took over a police department plagued by incompetents and rogues. The department’s less-than-successful handling of the high-profile 2009 Susan Powell disappearance didn’t win them any accolades, but things didn’t begin to unravel publicly until after the 2012 shooting death of 21-year-old Danielle Willard in a West Valley apartment parking lot.
Willard was shot by a member of West Valley ’s narcotics unit, and the resulting investigation exposed that the unit was so flawed it eventually had to be dismantled. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill filed to dismiss several of its cases because of problems with one if its officers, and the department’s own investigation found multiple violations, including mishandling evidence, inappropriately tracking people with GPS and absconding property from suspect vehicles. Gill, who even brought the FBI into the investigation at one point, also later found that the shooting of Willard was not justified.
Then came news last fall that the department’s sex crimes/domestic violence unit had improperly closed cases. Ten of those cases had been listed as screened by prosecutors, but the prosecutors had no record of ever seeing them.
So deep was the muck that Russo took it upon himself to perform a department-wide audit of every one of West Valley’s criminal cases over the past year. That audit, Russo announced this week, turned up no significant issues beyond the ones already known. Given Russo’s efforts to both clean up the department and make it more transparent, that announcement carries some credibility.
The fallout is still working its way through the system. The officer who shot Willard maintains he did nothing wrong and is appealing his termination to West Valley’s Civil Service Commission. All the detectives in the sex crimes unit have either resigned or been transferred, and the detective found to have improperly closed cases faces discipline.
And the family of Willard has filed a federal wrongful-death lawsuit against West Valley City and the officers involved. The suit is working its way through the court system.
Russo said the fact that his audit did not turn up any new issues shows that it’s a “good police department” overall. No doubt most West Valley police personnel have carried out their jobs with skill and integrity, and that was true even in the department’s darkest hours. With Russo on board, there’s hope the whole department is becoming more fire-retardant.