West Valley City will weed out wayward cops, mayor says
West Valley City • Mayor Mike Winder on Tuesday said the city must root out "any and all impropriety" and establish stronger independent oversight to get its troubled police department back on track.
In addition, an important part of the process will be selecting a police chief who will help set a new tone in the department, he said.
"It is critical that we have leadership at the top of our department that views with seriousness any breach of protocol, that has a firm handle on what is going on in the department and that can quickly correct anything that is out of line," Winder said at a news conference at West Valley City Hall.
The West Valley City Police Department has been under fire for the alleged actions of its Neighborhood Narcotics Unit which currently is the subject of federal, state and internal probes investigating allegations of corruption, criminal activity and mishandling of evidence that prompted prosecutors to throw out dozens of cases.
The U.S. Attorney's Office announced this week that two more cases involving the unit have been dismissed, bringing the total to 10 federal cases, and the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office has dismissed 88 cases. Both state and federal prosecutors have said they continue to review filings to determine if additional cases should be dismissed.
The department also has been criticized for its handling of the unsolved 2009 disappearance of Susan Powell and the fatal shooting in November of Danielle Willard by plainclothes police detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon during a drug-related bust.
The two detectives and seven other officers, all former members of the narcotics unit, have been placed on administrative leave. The unit was shut down in December by then-Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen, and an internal audit began after drug evidence dating back a year was found in Cowley's trunk following Willard's death.
Nielsen, who had been police chief since 2002, retired in March and a nationwide search is underway for his replacement. City Manager Wayne Pyle has said Nielsen recently underwent extensive, arduous surgery and that the chief concluded he couldn't provide the kind of vigilance and leadership the department needs.
In his speech, Winder said the city must learn from others and already has taken steps to that end with plans to form a special panel to review the dismissed cases. Members will include a retired judge, a former district attorney, probably a member of the West Valley City legal team and a member of the police department, who will be available to answer any technical questions.
The West Valley City Council also decided to set up the Police and Public Safety Advancement Task Force to explore the qualifications desired in a new chief and best practices involving chain of command and evidence handling. The task force members will include the mayor, two council members, city manager, city attorney, city finance director and a resident. Input also will come from outside law enforcement agencies and the Fraternal Order of Police.
And the council is making changes in the Professional Standards Review Board (PSRB), a body that monitors the department, which has about 180 officers. The board now is made up of six civilians and a police officer; council members agreed at their study meeting on Tuesday that under a new configuration , there will be seven civilians and a non-voting officer. In addition, the city manager will appoint the members with the consent of the council and the police department will lose its current role in selecting appointees.
In other changes, the city will create a written set of rules to make board operations more transparent, publicize how to file a complaint with the board and require more extensive training for its members. The PSRB will issue quarterly reports detailing its activities and take public comment at the beginning of its monthly meetings.
The board until now has not published its work or allowed members of the public to attend meetings. West Valley police refused to allow a Tribune reporter to attend a PSRB meeting earlier this month and the city has denied a newspaper records request for internal affairs reports.
Winder on Tuesday stressed that the problem cases are related to one unit and that the remaining members of the department "continue to be engaged in top notch police work day in and day out."
"West Valley City will not stand down, but we will stand tall," he said. "This city has had its share of challenges through the years, and each time we have worked through them."
Reporter Janelle Stecklein contributed to this article.