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Peg McEntee: Sorry, Buzz, but West Valley's police force needs overhaul
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

You might feel a little sorry for former West Valley City Police Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen. Just last week, he asserted that an audit of the department's disbanded narcotics unit showed it had no "systemic problems."

That was then.

On Friday, City Manager Wayne Pyle announced that the audit found mishandled evidence, no documentation on booked items and, possibly, missing drugs and money.

Oh, and revelations that narcotics officers kept "trophies" from drug busts for themselves or to use as training aids. Some cops may have improperly used confidential informants, some of them undocumented immigrants.

You can't blame Nielsen for being out of the loop; he retired in March and didn't know the latest. But the alleged offenses did happen on his watch.

The fact remains that a young woman, shot in a would-be drug bust, is dead after a confrontation that still has more questions than answers.

One suspect lost his job and his car when he was nabbed on drug charges and had to pay the department $1,200 to get back his vehicle. He was one of several suspects, most of them indigent, who had their cases dismissed.

Detective Shaun Cowley, who with colleague Kevin Salmon shot and killed alleged drug user Danielle Willard in November, was found to have a year's worth of drug-bust evidence in the trunk of his car.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has dismissed 19 cases and has said scores of others could also be tossed. The U.S. Attorney's Office dropped eight cases involving the narcotics unit.

I have no doubt that a great many West Valley City police officers are stand-up cops, willing to do whatever it takes — within the law — to keep their city and their colleagues safe.

But it's chilling to know that some, often working in plainclothes, have the power to put people behind bars with tainted evidence — and it's not just those individuals; their families suffer, too.

That's why it's important that the FBI is investigating Willard's death and possible corruption among the narcotics cops.

Still, West Valley City isn't alone. Through the years, many police departments small and large have been found guilty of corruption, greed and excess violence.

But when it's possible that up to 100 people have been improperly charged, it's clear that the West Valley City force is ripe for reorganization and retraining of beat officers and commanders alike.

Remember, we still have no idea what happened to Susan Powell, who vanished a few years before her husband, Josh, killed himself and their two sons. Or why Melissa Kennedy still doesn't know why her daughter, Danielle, had to die.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @Peg McEntee.

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