West Valley City • The troubled past of the West Valley City Police Department came up Thursday during Chief Lee Russo’s first-ever community meeting, but mostly residents were cautiously optimistic that their hometown was turning over a new leaf.
The meeting was the first of its kind since Russo took over the department last fall. Held in the Utah Cultural Celebration Center, it began with a PowerPoint presentation of Russo’s goals, followed by a question-and-answer session for the 40 or so attendees.
"I’m a big boy," Russo invited. "Take your best shot."
But despite the invitation and the controversy surrounding the department — the troubled narcotics unit was closed last year, among other things — most residents responded warmly to Russo. Dan Farr, among the first to comment, said his neighborhood had recently seen a spike in gang activity. Walls were covered with graffiti and he even looked up a YouTube video of a violent gang initiation in a park by his house. Farr wanted to know what the city was going to do about it.
When another man at the meeting raised a similar issue, asking how long was appropriate for the city to leave gang markings up, Russo jumped in.
"Let’s build a policy right now," he said.
Russo joked that "six minutes" might be a good amount of time to get the graffiti down, before suggesting a more realistic two-day window.
It was the kind of response that got heads nodding in approval for much of the session. Later, Larry Wiley — a lifetime West Valley City resident and Utah State representative — praised Russo, saying he liked the direction the city is now taking. Again, heads nodded.
Among the more pointed questions at the meeting, Juanita Ramos Corum pointed out that many of the department’s past problems "started at the top."
"Are you going to look in every crack and every cranny at the top?" she asked Russo.
Russo responded that he was working to identify where in the chain of command the department’s failures had happened. He also argued that he wasn’t lopping off the head of the department, he was "playing the hand he was dealt." Russo then went on to discuss officer retention, another issue Corum raised.
The discussion evidently satisfied Corum; after the meeting she said she was ecstatic with Russo and his work to restore trust in the department. Corum even offered to write a grant for the department to get body cameras, an issue first raised Wednesday by another attendee.
Other topics that came up Wednesday included Community Oriented Policing, recruitment and a spike in narcotics, which Lori and Mickey Bailey have witnessed over the last seven months in their neighborhood.
When the meeting ended, uniformed officers swooped in and took specific complaints and handed out cards with police phone numbers. The Baileys took a card, as did Farr and others. People lingered, the officers listened. And if the goal was to bridge the gap between the residents and the police, it seemed to work.
"I feel a lot better after coming to this meeting," Farr said.
It was sentiment apparently shared by many who attended.
Russo plans to continue hosting similar monthly meetings, which he has labled the "police/Community Forum." Dates, times and locations of future meetings will be announced at a later time.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.