West Valley City presents chief who'll lead troubled police force
West Valley City • A former police chief from Kentucky will lead the troubled police force in Utah's second-largest city, with a priority of restoring trust in law enforcement after a series of controversies.
"I saw this as an opportunity that I was well-matched for," Lee Russo said at a news conference Tuesday announcing his selection.
Russo said he won't immediately enact change but will work with the Police Department to correct problems and move forward.
City Manager Wayne Pyle's selection of Russo, out of dozens of applicants, must be presented to West Valley City Council members for their approval. The council is slated to vote on the appointment at its Tuesday meeting.
Pay for the job is $128,000 a year, plus benefits.
Russo, 49, was chief of the Covington, Ky., Police Department from 2007 to 2012 and worked more than two decades before at the Baltimore County Police Department in Maryland, working his way up to captain and precinct commander. He also spent nearly three years as a sworn law enforcement officer at the University of Delaware.
He has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Delaware and a master's degree in business management and organizational development from Johns Hopkins University, according to his LinkedIn profile.
City officials had ranked communication skills and a track record of strong, ethical leadership as key qualities in a candidate for the top cop spot in West Valley, which has been working to restore community faith in the police.
Media reports in Covington a 44,000-population city that sits directly across the Ohio River from Cincinnati said Russo emphasized community policing and that crime dropped during his tenure.
He also had a rocky relationship with some of his officers. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that 94 percent of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1 members who voted expressed "no confidence" in Russo in 2009. The organization would not say how many voted and some of them were former members of the Covington Police Department, according to the newspaper.
Russo acknowledged he's stepped on some toes in the past and that may happen in West Valley City as well. He said that in Covington, he was the first chief hired from outside the department in more than 100 years and he destabilized the status quo.
The community, he said, came out in support of him after police officers tried to force him from office. And he worked with the police union to improve working conditions and build professionalism.
Russo said he's troubled when the community doesn't trust its police department, adding that he has a duty to remove any bad officers. He plans to hold a police community forum and meet monthly to discuss "the good, the bad and the ugly" and address distrust in the community.
"We will be better," he said. "We will serve our communities. We will change, we will grow and we will be better."
Russo said he and his wife, Susan, are building a home in West Valley City and that he plans to be in the job long term.
The West Valley police chief's job opened up after the retirement of Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen, who cited medical reasons for his departure in March. During a months-long search, the city received 36 applications from around the nation, including several from Utah.
The police department has been under fire for the alleged actions of its Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, including the fatal shooting in November of an unarmed woman by two detectives.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced Aug. 8 that the use of deadly force in that case was not justified. His office is screening possible criminal charges against the officers, who deny any wrongdoing in the shooting of 21-year-old Danielle Willard.
The department also has been criticized for the alleged mishandling of evidence that led to the dismissal of 125 drug cases and its handling of the case involving the 2009 disappearance of West Valley mother Susan Powell.
By the numbers
The West Valley City Police Department has a staff of four deputy chiefs, 11 lieutenants, 18 sergeants, an additional 156 sworn officers and 45 civilian employees. It operates on an annual budget of $20 million.
Source: West Valley City