West Valley City » Lee Russo has spent the past three months fielding heated questions from within the ranks of his own department.
As Russo, 49, heads into his fifth month as chief of West Valley City’s troubled police department, Officer Jeff McNees easily recalls one of the most controversial questions: Does Russo support the good ol’ boy system of management?
Russo fired back: "This is one thing about the good ol’ boy system, I don’t know a single damn one of you."
It’s that objective and sometimes-blunt management style that West Valley City leaders are counting on in Russo to shepherd the department and its 194.5 sworn officers back into calmer waters and to restore the shaken trust of the public they serve.
"I’m a big believer that I’m not going to hide from our problems," Russo said. "I’m not going to hide from our mistakes. If a mistake happens, acknowledge it. Mistakes happen all over the country in every occupation, every day. Just deal with it. That’s what people want."
It’s been a tumultuous year filled with scandals linked to the department’s Neighborhood Narcotics Unit and sex/domestic violence unit and the fallout from the 2012 unjustified fatal shooting of 21-year-old Danielle Willard during an alleged drug bust. Internally, the department is rampant with allegations of a good ol’ boy system in which many officers believed those closest to upper management escaped discipline and got the coveted promotions — whether merited — and of low morale as a result of everything.
"There appeared to be inequity in how things worked, were looked at," Russo said. "And one of my drives is to remove those perceived or real inequities."
City Manager Wayne Pyle said Russo’s biggest challenge is to bring unity to the department.
"For a long time," Pyle said, " ... members of the department haven’t felt that they were listened to or that their concerns were acted upon."
Putting down roots » Russo said city leaders know that this isn’t just going to be "a punch on a résumé" for him or his wife of 27 years, Susan.
"When I came here, I wanted the city to make a commitment, recognizing that this is a changed agenda," he said. "One of the things to make a changed agenda effective is an understanding of stability."
The father of three adult children, Russo said he and his wife are invested. The two (along with a 17-month-old lab-mix named Buster) are building a home in West Valley City.
"In fact, this may be my last stop on the law enforcement radio," Russo said. "I’m kind of hoping it is. And by putting our feet down here, in West Valley City, we’re as invested in the community as anybody else. We want the police department to be successful because, you never know, one day maybe I’ll need them."
The couple met at Burger King when Russo was just 16. Russo was working the broiler; Susan, the specialty board. He says with a laugh that it was love at first sight — for him.
"I was the persistent one," he said. "I just couldn’t take no for an answer."
Since that day, he’s earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Delaware and a master’s degree in management from Johns Hopkins University. Through the decades, he’s continuously worked his way up the ranks from a patrol officer to chief.
Mr. Fix-It » Along the way, Russo has earned the reputation as a fixer of broken departments.
"I thought here’s an organization that may be able to benefit from somebody that’s been through the challenges and changes of an organization," Russo said. "I’ve made a career out of being placed in assignments with the expectation of implementing change."
At his last job in Covington, Ky., he faced a hostile, union-run Fraternal Order of Police that about 18 months into his five-year tenure announced a vote of no confidence against him. (Russo and McNees both say that most of those voting against him turned out to be a contingent of retired officers who didn’t know him.)Next Page >
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