DA faults West Valley City cops in killing of Danielle Willard
A determination that two West Valley City drug detectives were in the wrong when they shot and killed an unarmed woman came Thursday after nine long months of investigation.
Meanwhile Danielle Willard's death set off multiple probes into the West Valley City Police Department, with a screening of possible criminal charges against officers Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon being the latest addition to that growing list. The city also is contending with a federal wrongful death suit filed by Willard's family, while the officers who shot her still firmly deny any wrongdoing in their decision to open fire on the afternoon of Nov. 2, 2012.
The central question behind Willard's death whether it was justified under the law has been answered, but the shockwaves around it are still being felt, and Thursday's ruling did little to calm the rumblings.
A contentious finding • Cowley and Salmon shot Willard in the parking lot of a West Valley City apartment complex while she was in her Subaru Forester. Police said in March that the undercover drug detectives had spotted Willard purchasing heroin from a known drug house nearby and had approached the vehicle. Police said Willard then backed up her car and hit Cowley, prompting both officers to fire at her. She died at the scene after being shot in the top of her head.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, though, found that Willard did not back up her car directly at Cowley, never hit him and never posed a serious threat to either detective findings that the officers' attorneys still dispute. The officers also knew neither was in a harmful situation, the DA's Office found, and had no justification for shooting six times at Willard.
Willard's mother, Melissa Kennedy, released a short statement Thursday through the Los Angeles office of her attorney Mark Geragos saying the family "appreciated" the determination.
"The findings confirm what we have always known: Danielle was murdered," Kennedy said.
Kennedy has said in previous interviews that her daughter, a native of Vancouver, Wash., had struggled with drugs in the past and moved to Utah to join a drug rehabilitation program.
Gill said his office relied heavily on forensic evidence to determine just how close the detectives were to Willard's vehicle, and to determine that the evidence did not support the detectives' stories. He would not, however, comment on what motivated the detectives to tell a story different from what he said the evidence showed. He also cautioned against "rumors" of a department-wide cover-up or conspiracy in the Willard case, and said the department had been cooperative in assisting his office's investigation. He also emphasized the actions of "one or some" officers was not indicative of the entire department.
'Hindsight can be 20-20' • The attorneys representing Cowley and Salmon strongly dispute Gill's findings. They contend that the district attorney left out important facts and ignored basic science behind police shootings, in general, to reach his conclusion.
"It resonates a message to law enforcement throughout this valley that they should hesitate when making force determinations," said Salmon's attorney Bret Rawson. "That hesitation is going to get cops killed."
The science the attorneys referred to is a set of principles advocated by the Force Science Institute, a Minnesota-based company that researches the psychological basis behind an officer's decision to use deadly force. Rawson and Cowley's attorney, Lindsay Jarvis, accused Gill of ignoring Force Science's analysis of the shooting, even though Gill has hired that same company annually to train officers in police shootings for the past two years. The firm was hired by West Valley City Police during its internal investigation into the shooting.
According to Jarvis, the company's investigators found that Willard's tires were turned to the left when she parked at the apartment complex. That means when Willard backed up her car, it would have circled back and struck Cowley, she said.
"When an officer turns around and hears a vehicle swerving out and coming at him in spite of what Sim Gill says he's in fear for his life," Jarvis said.
According to the officers' attorneys, Cowley fired the first, and fatal, shot just before the car struck him in the knee and knocked him to the ground. The car then continued in its circular path until it hit a red Dodge Nitro parked in the space next to it.
According to Rawson, Salmon, who was on the opposite side of the vehicle, fired four more shots through the windshield after losing sight of Cowley.
"Obviously, hindsight can be 20-20, but it's what the officer perceives that matters when making any force determination," he said.
Rawson, who is also general counsel for the Fraternal Order of Police, a statewide police union, indicated that there may be political repercussions for Gill's decision.
"The FOP has had enough," he said. "We are calling for a candidate to emerge who has an understanding of Force Science principles."
Both Rawson and Jarvis said they are prepared to defend their clients in court if criminal charges are filed against them.
Criminal charges? • That decision will be made by the DA's Office, which will now start a second criminal inquiry. Gill said his office wants to "move as quickly as we can," but he wants to make sure he has gone through all the evidence.
"We will file charges if they are warranted. We will not file charges if they are not warranted," Gill said.
West Valley City Deputy Chief Mike Powell said he respected the findings of the DA's Office, and that his department would continue working with Gill and his investigators. Meanwhile, the department will continue its own separate investigation into the shooting to determine whether Cowley and Salmon followed department policy. The officers will remain on paid administrative leave as the internal investigation wraps up, Powell said.
West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder said he appreciates the meticulous nature of Gill's investigation.
"I support the district attorney in his findings and am grateful for the thorough processes we have to review these delicate issues," Winder said. "My heart continues to go out to all involved in this tragedy."
Assistant City Manager Paul Isaac pointed out that West Valley City did the investigative work that Gill used to reach his conclusions.
"I think it restores faith in our police department because of the fact that our investigators were so thorough in presenting the case to the DA," Isaac said.
Several members of the West Valley City Council agreed with Isaac.
"I think, in the long run, it will help restore trust," Councilman Don Christensen said. "As District Attorney Gill said, this doesn't reflect on the whole department."
The latest blow • Community trust has been shaken by the whirlwind of controversy that for the past nine months has swirled around the West Valley City Police Department. Simultaneous federal, county and internal probes have been launched, the department's Neighborhood Narcotics Unit has been shut down after several instances of mishandled evidence handling were uncovered, and 125 state and federal drug cases emanating from that unit have been dismissed by prosecutors concerned they no longer had a legitimate force of detectives to back up their charges.
Prosecutors' decision to drop the cases was influenced by an internal investigation that began after Willard's death. Police investigating the November shooting allegedly found old drug evidence in Cowley's trunk. After a deeper probe into the narcotics unit, investigators found that keeping evidence was a common practice among a handful of detectives. The narcotics unit was disbanded in December, and seven officers from that unit, in addition to Cowley and Salmon, were put on administrative leave.
The case also lives on in federal court, where Willard's parents filed a wrongful death suit against the city in June.
Gill's ruling is the latest blow to the department, which is in the middle of finding a replacement for longtime chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen, who retired in March.
The DA's Office had previously charged another West Valley City officer in an unjustified non-fatal shooting. In March 2012, former officer Jared Cardon was charged with reckless endangerment for shooting at Jose Contreras, who was allegedly attempting to flee the scene of a crash on a crowded roadway. The charges were eventually dropped in August 2012.
Tribune reporters Pamela Manson, Jessica Miller and Bob Mims contributed to this article.
A look at the different reactions after the District Attorney's ruling on the Danielle Willard shooting
"The findings confirm what we have always known: Danielle was murdered." Melissa Kennedy, Danielle Willard's mother
"It resonates a message to law enforcement throughout this valley that they should hesitate when making force determinations. That hesitation is going to get cops killed." Bret Rawson, attorney for West Valley Detective Kevin Salmon, one of the two officers who fired on Willard.
"When you fail to hold accountable a bad officer, good officers suffer." District Attorney Sim Gill
"We will continue doing the police work that we have always done and continue working as diligently as we can." West Valley City Police Deputy Chief Mike Powell
"I support the district attorney in his findings and am grateful for the thorough processes we have to review these delicate issues." West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder
"I think in the long run it will help restore trust. As District Attorney Gill said, this doesn't reflect on the whole department." West Valley City Councilman Don Christensen