West Valley City to form panel to review dismissed drug cases
West Valley City announced Thursday that it plans to form a special panel to review the scores of cases dismissed by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office pertaining to the city's disbanded narcotics squad.
"We just want to get a third-party review that is neutral to both sides so they can make a neutral review to us where we can improve our practices," said city spokesman Aaron Crim. "We want someone who doesn't have the interest of the D.A.'s Office and the interest of us in mind when they're reviewing us and making recommendations."
The Special Review Panel 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, Crim said. He said the board was still being finalized but could start meeting as early as next week.
Crim said the names and format of the board would be made public as soon it is finalized.
"This is a logical next step as we work to restore public trust," said City Manager Wayne Pyle in a written statement. "This panel will provide us neutral, expert recommendations as we move forward with improved policies and procedures and appropriate accountability measures."
By no means is the task force "any kind of comment on our relationship ... or doubt in what Sim Gill's doing in the District Attorney's Office," Pyle said.
The task force will also look into whether any of the dismissed cases can be salvaged and filed again as misdemeanors. It's not the main thrust of the board's mission, but it would be a "side benefit" if they can still pursue prosecution of alleged crimes, Pyle said.
The announcement comes a day after the West Valley City Police Department announced it had placed seven more officers on leave who were connected to the former unit, which was disbanded in December by former Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen, who retired in March due to health problems. A national search has been launched for his replacement.
The officers Lt. John Coyle, Sgt. Michael Johnson, and detectives Ricardo Franco, Sean McCarthy, Rafael Frausto, Chris Smith and Barbara Lund were placed on paid administrative leave effective Wednesday. The seven join colleagues Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon, who were already on leave in connection with the fatal shooting of 21-year-old Danielle Willard during a November drug investigation.
Pyle announced last Friday that an internal audit of the Police Department's narcotics unit had 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 also said 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 for themselves and for use as training aids.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced Monday that his office had tossed another 69 criminal cases increasing the total to 88 state cases and eight federal and revealed that the probe into mishandled cases had expanded to include all members of the city's now-defunct narcotics unit.
In an interview Thursday with KSL Radio's Doug Wright, Pyle acknowledged the possibility of convictions in West Valley cases being overturned. But he declined to speculate on whether any officers would wind up behind bars and said the city is addressing the situation.
"Any problems that we have will be fixed," Pyle said.
The cases dismissed thus far are all currently active in 3rd District Court. But defense attorneys said they have heard from some defendants whose cases have already been adjudicated.
Susanne Gustin said Thursday she has heard from three people who have drug-related convictions Â two within the past five years relating to the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit. She said her clients are concerned about evidence handling and possible misconduct in their cases.
"If people hear West Valley City and narcotics, people are concerned," Gustin said. "The minute people hear about it, they start calling attorneys."
Gustin said any review of the cases is going to be extremely time-consuming since the allegations of misconduct involve more than one officer and multiple types of cases. She said there is talk of forming a defense attorney task force to help analyze cases to determine if any convictions should be appealed.
"When you have the entire unit involved, then it looks like a systemic problem," Gustin said. "It becomes a much larger problem. This is going to be extremely time-consuming for prosecutors and defense attorneys."
She said one of her clients served jail time and another was on probation.
"They lost time, and it was expensive for them," Gustin said. "One of them had property forfeitures. There are some collateral consequences that these people have to deal with. The biggest consequence is having a conviction on their records for drugs."
Earlier this week, the West Valley City Council decided to create a group to explore the qualifications desired in a new police chief and best practices involving chain of command and evidence handling.
The Police & Public Safety Advancement Task Force, which was proposed by Councilman Corey Rushton,, also will study possible collaborations with other law enforcement agencies and brainstorm ways to foster safe neighborhoods by fighting drugs and gangs.
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.