Editor column: Tribune is the watchdog as West Valley City confronts its problems
The Salt Lake Tribune has published dozens of stories on the West Valley City Police Department since Nov. 2, the day two narcotics detectives fired upon and killed Danielle Willard, who was unarmed. No other story since then has received more attention in our pages and on our website than the problems faced by West Valley law enforcement.
From the beginning, we asked questions, filed open-records requests all to get answers to what happened that afternoon. When days turned into weeks, and weeks to months, with no answers from the police but plenty of allegations from Willard's family, it seemed clear there were problems in West Valley.
Â All this on top of a tragically frustrating three-year investigation of Susan Powell's disappearance, and sentiments in the public and among officials in Washington state that West Valley detectives dragged their feet in charging Josh Powell, the husband who murdered the couple's two young boys and killed himself.
Now, almost 100 drug-related cases have been tossed by Salt Lake County and federal prosecutors because of alleged problems with how West Valley police investigated them. On Friday, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill filed to dismiss 26 more cases. Seven officers from the department's disbanded narcotics unit have been placed on leave, joining the two involved in Willard's death. The FBI is investigating the department in connection with that shooting, and allegations of corruption in the narcotics squad.
The direction the city takes from here is up to its leaders: the city council, Mayor Mike Winder, City Manager Wayne Pyle and acting police chief Anita Schwemmer. For our part, we will continue to dog them with questions and dig deeper into what really has been going on inside the police department of Utah's second largest city. That's our role, our job, to inform the public, so citizens in turn know, and can act.
On Saturday, The Tribune's West Valley City reporter, Pam Manson, broached the possibility of the city joining Salt Lake County's Unified Police Department, led by Sheriff Jim Winder. After all, UPD handles law enforcement in other cities in the county. It is an idea that, understandably, might not sit well with West Valley leaders. One reason a city incorporates is so local leaders can control how their city is run, and a police force is a huge part of that. Also, those city leaders likely feel they can fix these problems, and that's what their constituents expect of them.
More than a month ago, Tribune Justice Desk editor Nate Carlisle took a hard look at how West Valley City polices the police through its Professional Standards Review Board. What he discovered suggests the board is largely ineffective. It has no autonomy to investigate complaints against the police. It publishes no reports, standard procedure for oversight boards in other cities. A police sergeant has a say in what cases are reviewed. The police chief apparently has a say in who is appointed to the board. Mayor Winder insists this will change, that independent oversight will become stronger. But it took Carlisle's story to point out the problem.
Speaking of Mike Winder, our coverage includes the wider implications of the city's police scandal. What's the fallout on the political aspirations of the mayor? In another story from Manson, some offer the opinion that this is more opportunity than liability. Winder, pundits say, has the chance to show leadership, show what he can accomplish, in steering his city through roiling water. Time will tell.
The end of West Valley City's troubles are not in sight. On Sunday, Janelle Stecklein, our lead reporter on the story, has a front-page look at the possibilities of older, already adjudicated cases coming back because of how police investigators possibly botched them. The Salt Lake County district attorney is sifting through more than 400 potentially problematic cases. The fallout could be mind-boggling: Innocent people in jail. Perpetrators released early because of technical errors by police.
As city, county and federal investigators sort out this mess, we'll cover and scrutinize every step, and step in ourselves with questions investigators and public officials do not ask. Our role is to bring you answers.
Terry Orme is a managing editor at The Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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