West Valley City Police chief focuses on rebuilding public trust
By Janelle Stecklein | The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jan 04 2014 01:01AM
West Valley City • Lee Russo has spent the past three months fielding heated questions from within the ranks of his own department.
As Russo, 49, heads into his fifth month as chief of West Valley City’s troubled police department, Officer Jeff McNees easily recalls one of the most controversial questions: Does Russo support the good ol’ boy system of management?
Russo fired back: "This is one thing about the good ol’ boy system, I don’t know a single damn one of you."
It’s that objective and sometimes-blunt management style that West Valley City leaders are counting on in Russo to shepherd the department and its 194.5 sworn officers back into calmer waters and to restore the shaken trust of the public they serve.
"I’m a big believer that I’m not going to hide from our problems," Russo said. "I’m not going to hide from our mistakes. If a mistake happens, acknowledge it. Mistakes happen all over the country in every occupation, every day. Just deal with it. That’s what people want."
It’s been a tumultuous year filled with scandals linked to the department’s Neighborhood Narcotics Unit and sex/domestic violence unit and the fallout from the 2012 unjustified fatal shooting of 21-year-old Danielle Willard during an alleged drug bust. Internally, the department is rampant with allegations of a good ol’ boy system in which many officers believed those closest to upper management escaped discipline and got the coveted promotions — whether merited — and of low morale as a result of everything.
"There appeared to be inequity in how things worked, were looked at," Russo said. "And one of my drives is to remove those perceived or real inequities."
City Manager Wayne Pyle said Russo’s biggest challenge is to bring unity to the department.
"For a long time," Pyle said, " ... members of the department haven’t felt that they were listened to or that their concerns were acted upon."
Putting down roots • Russo said city leaders know that this isn’t just going to be "a punch on a résumé" for him or his wife of 27 years, Susan.
"When I came here, I wanted the city to make a commitment, recognizing that this is a changed agenda," he said. "One of the things to make a changed agenda effective is an understanding of stability."
The father of three adult children, Russo said he and his wife are invested. The two (along with a 17-month-old lab-mix named Buster) are building a home in West Valley City.
"In fact, this may be my last stop on the law enforcement radio," Russo said. "I’m kind of hoping it is. And by putting our feet down here, in West Valley City, we’re as invested in the community as anybody else. We want the police department to be successful because, you never know, one day maybe I’ll need them."
The couple met at Burger King when Russo was just 16. Russo was working the broiler; Susan, the specialty board. He says with a laugh that it was love at first sight — for him.
"I was the persistent one," he said. "I just couldn’t take no for an answer."
Since that day, he’s earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Delaware and a master’s degree in management from Johns Hopkins University. Through the decades, he’s continuously worked his way up the ranks from a patrol officer to chief.
Mr. Fix-It • Along the way, Russo has earned the reputation as a fixer of broken departments.
"I thought here’s an organization that may be able to benefit from somebody that’s been through the challenges and changes of an organization," Russo said. "I’ve made a career out of being placed in assignments with the expectation of implementing change."
At his last job in Covington, Ky., he faced a hostile, union-run Fraternal Order of Police that about 18 months into his five-year tenure announced a vote of no confidence against him. (Russo and McNees both say that most of those voting against him turned out to be a contingent of retired officers who didn’t know him.)
And both shrug off that vote.
"It was a union drive to derail me," Russo said. "It was a situation where the organization saw no need to change, but the public and the elected officials around me saw a drastic need for change. My challenge was working through that disconnect."
By the time Russo left the department in 2012 because he was "worn out," he said major crimes had dropped by 25 percent, professionalism had increased and the department was on a new track that continues to this day.
"He was a great link to and a great advocate to the communities there," Pyle said.
"By the time he left Covington," McNees added, "he had an excellent reputation with the FOP."
Covington officials did not respond to requests for interviews for this story.
Russo said he doesn’t expect similar difficulties in West Valley City.
"This organization recognizes and desires a change," he said. "They want progressive and effective leadership. They want to do better, and they want somebody to help promote them and guide them in a way that they will be able to be successful, be empowered to be successful."
He knows he’ll have to have thick skin, but he says he is ready to accept criticism or questions and vows to bring an openness and approachability to the job.
"My door is open to everybody that knocks on it," he said. "I’ll stop what I’m doing, and I’ll listen to what their thoughts and concerns are."
And it will take that attitude and courage to thrive.
"Policing is a very difficult occupation, and it’s particularly difficult in a community where there are already questions of competence and integrity," said former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III, who co-wrote the book "Leadership, Ethics, and Policing" and has been involved in education and training of police.
He stressed that he is not familiar with West Valley City or Russo but said a chief in Russo’s position would typically need to make "absolute integrity and honesty" a prime requisite for all members of his department and needs to "initiate absolute transparency." He also needs a strong internal-affairs unit with officers known for "integrity and competence," and he’ll need an honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the department and a strategic plan for fixing those.
"He must also stress that it is to the advantage of the department for individual officers to report wrongdoing," Meese said. "Be scrupulous in avoiding wrongdoing and report those that are involved."
Watching and waiting • For the first three months, Russo sat back, watched and simply listened to feedback all the while formulating his plans for the future of West Valley City’s troubled police department.
"What I was really looking for was the meat and potatoes of what is really going on inside the organization," he said. "[I found by and large that] it’s a very good police department. Nonetheless, it has the need for aggressive leadership and vision, and that was lacking."
Russo is candid about what he perceives as the strengths and weaknesses of his department that serves the state’s second-largest city.
He said when former Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen retired last year, the agency basically went idle for about nine months before Russo was hired.
Described by colleagues as a straight shooter who tells it like it is, he’s also armed with a dose of humility, a sense of what’s reasonable to expect from his officers and a sense of humor.
"I don’t start anything with the idea that I’m going to fail," Russo said.
McNees, who until recently served as West Valley City’s Fraternal Order of Police president, said officers have been pleased with Russo and that he’s asking for their feedback.
"The police department in general has calmed," McNees said. "I think he instills a lot of confidence. He’s been surprisingly open to answering any questions, [and] some of the questions that have come up have been very hot. He’s put a lot of worries at ease. I guess we feel we have a direction, a really good direction."
Russo said the officers at all ranks consistently want three things:
Leadership at the top. Accountability throughout. And communication from the top to the bottom.
"We all wish for a quicker change," McNees said. "We wish it could happen quicker, but, on the other hand, since he’s taking his time, we know it’s going to be the proper change."
A new era? • After attentively listening for months, Russo is starting to make that change happen.
First to go: unequal discipline.
Soon there will be a disciplinary matrix in place that outlines what will happen to officers if they commit certain offenses.
"So there is no favoritism," Russo said. "So there is no allegation of well so-and-so got away with something because they were a friend of the chief. It establishes upfront what is expected."
Internal-affairs investigations won’t languish for months anymore, either.
The department also is headed toward accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), which independently goes into a department and analyzes policies and procedures and whether officers are implementing those.
"[With the concerns over the past 18 months], I think, first, the community needs the assurance that the police department is committing itself toward excellence and committing itself toward this process," Russo said. "And, second, it’s a process that is independently judged, so it’s not something we control."
Within the ranks, he is continually stressing professionalism, honesty and remembering why they wanted to be police officers in the first place.
Russo also is starting to make the rounds in the community to answer tough questions. Starting in January, he plans to hold a series of community meetings.
"He’s really taken the bull by the horns [here]," Pyle said, noting that Russo brings an energetic approach to the job. "He’s had a lot of meetings with the citizenry."
Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah, and one who has been vocally critical of the police department, said he met Russo briefly but likes what he’s seen so far.
"I like his attitude," Yapias said. "I think it was wise to bring somebody in from outside."
He touted Russo’s decision to review hundreds of cases linked to the sex crimes/domestic violence unit after someone identifying as a West Valley City employee raised concerns that a detective was mishandling cases. (The probe found that 15 out of 260 cases had been mishandled.)
"So far, he seems to be doing the right things," Yapias said. "Given all the problems the department has had, so far he’s taking control of the department, and that’s encouraging. I think it’s bringing the trust back in the community. We hope we’ll have the opportunity to work with him more."
Pyle said he’s confident the best days are ahead.
"[He] will bring that department together and will unite them with the community as well," Pyle said. "We’re looking forward to the future. I have every confidence that we’ll bring the department to where it needs to be. If that means we need to go through more trials and fire, we’ll deal with them, but hopefully we’ve seen the worst of that."