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Editorial: Ruling undermines public trust in police

Published May 16, 2014 3:40 pm

WVC officer deserved his demotion.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

West Valley City did the right thing in demoting John Coyle, the former police lieutenant who oversaw the corrupt narcotics task force whose members, by all accounts, disregarded police policy and even led to the unjustified shooting death of a young woman.

If the city committed an error in its handling of Coyle's case, it was toward leniency, not harshness.

So the city should swiftly appeal the outrageous ruling by the city's civil service commission that it should reinstate Coyle and award him back pay.

Even without all the details presented to the commission, it seems obvious from what is known about Coyle's inept supervision of the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit that he deserves, at least, to be demoted. Under his leadership, members of the unit shot and killed 21-year-old Danielle Willard, a fatality deemed legally unjustified by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office.

An investigation sparked by that killing found that members of the unit had routinely mishandled evidence and in other ways contaminated criminal investigations, forcing Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill to dismiss about 120 cases. The unit was in such chaos it had to be disbanded.

The lack of proper oversight of the unit seems to have encouraged a lack of respect for policy and proper law enforcement that may have led to the Willard shooting.

Still, although the commission admitted that a "preponderance of evidence" showed Coyle violated West Valley City police policies on property handling, reporting use-of-force and supervising subordinates, it found the appalling lack of leadership and accountability merely "technical in nature," and said Coyle's demotion was "unwarranted."

Although he was a long-time officer with years of training and experience, Coyle disingenuously testified that he was unaware of police policies such as the requirement to file a report when a detective displays a gun. While he belatedly admitted he could have established stricter expectations for his sergeant, such rationalization after the fact is not enough.

Part of what led to West Valley City's law-enforcement nightmare — the shooting death of a young woman and the gross mishandling of more than 100 criminal cases — was a lack of accountability and supervision in the police department.

The city now has a new mayor and a new police chief, who are trying to restore public trust. This ruling by the civil service commission should not be allowed to diminish the progress the city has made. It should not stand.