Feds throw out 8 more cases linked to West Valley narcotics squad
West Valley City • The U.S. Attorney's Office announced Tuesday that it will no longer prosecute eight cases involving the West Valley City police's narcotics unit.
Tuesday's announcement the first indication that issues with the now-disbanded narcotics squad extend beyond the local level brings the total number of dismissed cases to 27.
U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch said she couldn't release the names of the defendants in the federal cases affected by the dismissal "in the interests of justice," citing an ongoing FBI investigation.
West Valley City deputy Chief Mike Powell referred comment on the latest dismissed case to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"The U.S. Attorney's Office is aware of the recent allegations involving the West Valley City Police Department's Neighborhood Narcotics Unit," Rydalch said in a statement. "We are reviewing our cases and are taking appropriate action. This review will continue."
On March 20, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced he no longer believed he could obtain convictions in 19 cases filed in district court, citing unspecified problems with an unidentified West Valley City police officer. All but one of those cases involved drug-related offenses. Gill confirmed last week that his office is examining more cases that could be dismissed, a number that might exceed 100.
The 19 dismissed cases reportedly all involve West Valley police narcotics Detective Shaun Cowley, although authorities haven't ruled out that the probe could extend to other officers.
The department also has been criticized for its handling of the unsolved 2009 disappearance of Susan Powell and the death of Danielle Willard, who was fatally shot in November by Cowley and fellow plainclothes police Detective Kevin Salmon during a drug-related bust.
The FBI has launched an investigation into the West Valley City Police Department to determine whether there was corruption in its narcotics unit and whether there was a cover-up in Willard's shooting death.
The dismissed cases and criticism over the Willard shooting spurred the City Council to call for better police oversight.
At a council study meeting on Tuesday, City Manager Wayne Pyle recommended that the police department have no role in appointing members of the citizen board that reviews complaints against its officers and that the oversight body issue quarterly reports detailing its activities.
In addition, the city should publicize more aggressively how to file a complaint with the West Valley City Professional Standards Review Board (PSRB) and create a written set of rules to make board operations more efficient and transparent, according to a memorandum Pyle gave to the council.
"As it currently exists, the PSRB reviews all uses of force, citizen complaints and internal affairs investigations," the memo says. "However, there is no written set of rules and requirements setting forth the manner in which the PSRB will operate. This leaves the jurisdiction of the PSRB unclear and the manner of its operation undefined."
City Council members had directed Pyle to come up with ways to improve the review board. In a March 25 letter to the city manager, Mayor Mike Winder and the other six council members said they were frustrated with the recent police incidents.
Winder pointed out that West Valley City is only one of two Utah cities that have a police review board. The other is Salt Lake City.
"I think we could do better. I think we need to be more transparent," Winder said.
Pyle asked the council members to review the memo and let him know what changes they want to make. The council will meet to discuss the recommendations in two weeks.
Cowley was told that his matter will be on the review board's agenda on Thursday. West Valley City officials informed him that the board will consider 64 counts to terminate his employment, his attorney Lindsay Jarvis said Tuesday.
Jarvis confirmed that her client was involved in "policy violations" but that none were criminal in nature. She also said those unspecified "policy violations" were widespread across the narcotic's unit.
"There are common practices throughout the narcotics unit based on the custom of what they have done for years now," Jarvis said. "The allegations against Officer Cowley are violation of an alleged policy but â¦ everyone was doing it. He's [just] the one who's going to take the fall for it."
She alleged that Cowley did not receive the training he needed when he was became a detective on the narcotics squad. His previous position involved answering calls on all sorts of matters ranging from barking dogs to rapes, she said.
And Jarvis questioned why the city had asked the FBI to investigate if it is already planning to take action against Cowley without waiting to hear the findings from the independent federal agency.
Acting Police Chief Anita Schwemmer said that officers selected for the narcotics unit "are not rookie officers" and that they receive training. She declined to discuss any specific details of Cowley's case.
Six volunteers and a police officer serve on the West Valley City Professional Standards Review Board, a civilian body that monitors the city's nearly 200 police officers. The review board, which meets monthly in private, does not publish its work and does not have the autonomy that other police monitors across the nation do.
Prospective board members are nominated by the police chief, who submits his or her nomination to the city manager for appointment. The nominee joins the board when the City Council ratifies the appointment, which is for a two-year term.
During the public comment period at the West Valley City Council regular meeting, which followed the study meeting, both Jarvis and Bret Rawson, who is the general counsel for the Fraternal Order of Police, said that Cowley's Thursday review board hearing should be delayed until the FBI has delivered its findings. Jarvis also said that the possibility of the board being revamped also called for the matter to be heard later.
Pyle, though, said that the request by council members for recommendations on improving the review board does not mean the body is not functioning well.
The memo, written by City Attorney Eric Bunderson, says the board's meetings are not subject to the requirements of Utah's Open and Public Meetings Act because it merely makes recommendations to the police chief regarding discipline. Even if the board did conduct public meetings, the memo says, the law allows those meetings to be closed for "discussion of the character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of an individual."
"The only topic in PSRB meetings is the professional competence of police officers in using force or interacting with citizens," the memo says. "Therefore, even if the PSRB were to conduct public meetings, the meetings would be immediately closed, with none of the substantive business of the PSRB discussed in view of the public."
Other recommendations include holding meetings where people could voice concerns about the police or scheduling "office hours" for a board member to take comments in a confidential setting and requiring more extensive training of board members.
Powell said as far as the police review board study, it doesn't necessarily mean there are going to be any changes.
"As far as our current processes go, we continue forward," he said. "We don't put the world on hold waiting for the next change. We'd probably never get anything done if we did."