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West Valley City drug squad's demise doesn't handcuff cops

Published September 15, 2013 8:01 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

West Valley City • The man was clearly high.

The man, wanted on a third-degree felony warrant, stared into an officer's flashlight despite repeated admonitions to avoid looking directly into the light.

He rocked back and forth when officers told him to try to stand still as he voluntarily attempted to pass a sobriety test.

When West Valley City Officer Jacob Hill asked him to close his eyes and tell them when he believed 30 seconds had passed, his eyelids flickered abnormally as he struggled to measure out 30 seconds (he successfully waited out 18 before giving up).

The man said he used methamphetamine hours before, but officers said signs pointed to more recent use.

With the dissolution of the city's narcotics squad in late December amid allegations of corruption, misconduct and evidence mishandling and more than 120 tainted cases, a group of dedicated patrol officers — including Hill — has stepped in to fill the gap.

And — at least thus far — their dedication seems to be working.

Despite eliminating the approximately eight-detective narcotics squad, narcotics-related arrests are holding steady — down only about 3 percent compared with the same six months in 2012, records provided to The Salt Lake Tribune show.

"A lot of our patrol guys, that's kind of their niche," said Sgt. Jason Hauer, West Valley City police spokesman. "They're pretty proactive when it comes to drug problems. It's their drive. They like looking for drug problems and drug cases."

The most complex cases are being handled by the department's special investigations unit or, if necessary, by using the department's representative on the Drug Enforcement Administration's narcotics metropolitan task force.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said his staff hasn't seen any noticeable disruptions.

"It's been business as usual," he said. "We haven't noticed anything statistically different in our case filings in general and from West Valley in particular. We haven't seen anything that would cause us alarm or concern."

Hill says making narcotics busts is one of his favorite parts of the job. Since the narcotics squad was eliminated, he's had more of a chance to pursue it through writing and serving search warrants, investigating tips from residents and making arrests.

"I've really enjoyed it," Hill said. "I don't know that I would have been pushed or challenged to that point [if the narcotics unit still existed.]"

Drugs are typically at the root of a number of other crimes plaguing the city's residents — such as burglaries, car prowls and robberies — as drug users prey on law-abiding residents to fund their addictions, Hill said.

A by-the-book cop, Hill and the patrol officers he works with do their drug investigations systematically. They know where the big dope homes are and keep an eye on them, slowly building cases over weeks. They know which hotels usually harbor the addicts. When they're seeking permission to search, Hill takes the time to read the search warrant consent form.

Officers work the drug cases in between active calls for service from residents.

One of his first calls on a recent night shift was for child welfare check after a woman allegedly used drugs in the home of the child's father.

When Hill and two other officers pull up to the home around 10 p.m., the shirtless father was standing at the entrance, smoking a cigarette. He tells the officers that someone repeatedly keeps calling police on him to make false reports so he when he saw the police cars stop a short distance away, he assumed the officers were there for him.

He allows Hill and the two officers to come in. This time officers ask for permission to search the house.

After Hill reads a consent to search form, the man and his girlfriend both sign it, granting officers permission to search.

The officers search carefully, armed with flashlights, careful not to disturb the children asleep in the back room.

The tip turns out to be unfounded.

But the rest of the night pays off. By the end of the recent shift, Hill has added two arrests to the city's ongoing tally — he picked up one man for possession of methamphetamine and a second for possessing methamphetamine and cocaine.

West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo said the patrol officers are picking up the slack and "doing pretty well" when it comes to making narcotics-related arrests.

"There wasn't a big drop, which suggests by and large we were dealing with street-level dealers," he said of the statistics.

Russo said he has no immediate plans to reinstate the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit.

"We will probably be taking a look at that service and in terms of what's the right and best fit for the community and the department," he said.

Where a narcotics unit comes in handy is for the complex investigations where they want to nab a supplier, he said.

"They're necessary when you're moving beyond the dealer on the corner, when you want to disable an entire drug organization," Russo said. "You'll probably see that we'll come out with a hybrid model of what we were doing."

But even before he tackles the issue of the future of the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, Russo said his top priority is bringing the community services section back to full staffing levels.

The unit is extremely popular with West Valley City residents because it helps residents run Neighborhood Watch programs, promotes crime prevention and provides more face-to-face interaction with officers during times where there's not an emergency. By necessity, the department said it had to cut the unit down to minimal levels and reassign the unit's officers to other divisions to deal with department-wide staffing shortages.

jstecklein@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sltribjanelle Number of narcotics-related arrests made by West Valley City police

983 (Jan-June 2011)

939 (Jan-June 2012)

911 (Jan-June 2013)