Internal audit of West Valley City narcotics unit revealed problems
West Valley City • City manager Wayne Pyle announced Friday that an internal audit of the police department's now-disbanded narcotics unit unearthed a number of problems, including mishandling of evidence, booking evidence without proper documentation as well as the possibility of missing drugs and money.
Pyle said during an afternoon news conference that seized items were improperly accounted for, such as loose change or a CD in a seized vehicle, and that officers kept "trophies" from drug busts and used them as training aids, and to keep for themselves.
Pyle said officers also improperly used confidential informants, some of whom may have been undocumented immigrants.
The audit also found officers were using GPS tracking devices without first obtaining warrants.
Acting Chief Anita Schwemmer suggested changes to the law could be one reason trackers were misused. Schwemmer pointed out the U.S. Supreme Court only ruled last year that police need a warrant to place a tracking device on a vehicle parked in a public place.
"Sometimes we don't catch up culturally as fast as we should," Schwemmer said.
Schwemmer said the trophies kept by officers included items like candles and necklaces. They were used, in some cases, during training as examples of indicators that someone might be a part of the drug trafficking culture, she said.
There also may have been a common problem in the unit of allowing an officer to run another officer's evidence from the police department building to the evidence locker across the street. Pyle explained that when another officer handles evidence, that transfer needs to be documented.
In a couple instances, money and drugs from narcotics cases also may be missing, but Schwemmer and Pyle declined to comment on the amounts invovled.
Former West Valley Police Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen said this week that when he started the audit, he wanted to investigate cases going back about three years. On Friday, Schwemmer said that the problems they found dated back about two years.
Despite the problems, Pyle said he has confidence in the process.
"Our processes are what discovered the issues in the first place," Pyle noted. "I have confidence we will take care of these problems."
"I think we've done a pretty thorough audit," Schwemmer said. "We have looked at some other units and we have not had these findings."
The department had also looked at the special investigations unit, since it sometimes works with the narcotics squad, but did not find any issues with them.
The West Valley City police department is currently under investigation by the FBI for several things: the fatal shooting of a 21-year-old alleged drug user by Detective Shaun Cowley and his colleague Kevin Salmon; allegations of criminal conduct by Cowley; and allegations of corruption within the narcotics squad.
Cowley and Salmon are on paid leave, and 19 state court cases reportedly connected to Cowley have been dismissed by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill because of unspecified "credibility" issues.
Gill said up to 100 cases may be in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors have tossed eight cases involving the beleaguered police department's narcotics squad.
Nielsen said he shut down the narcotics unit and ordered the audit in December after investigators found drug case evidence in Cowley's trunk, not the evidence room. The drugs were discovered after detectives Cowley and Salmon shot and killed Danielle Willard during a Nov. 2 drug bust.
Nielsen who retired in March for health reasons said Wednesday he is confident there is no systemic problem within the narcotics unit.
He classified the issues with the narcotics squad as "minor" including that Cowley had stored evidence from four cases in his vehicle for up to a year.
But Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Thursday he wouldn't classify the issues as "minor."
"I do not think that issues that may implicate constitutional rights and due process rights are ever minor," Gill said. "[We had] no choice but to dismiss those cases. That was not a decision we took lightly or considered a minor issue."
State and federal authorities have been closed-mouthed about what specifically caused them to dismiss what now totals 27 cases.