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(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former West Valley City Police Lt. John Coyle, left, talks with his attorney Erik Strindberg at the West Valley City Civil Service Commission during his hearing at the West Valley City offices in West Valley City, Utah Monday, January 27, 2014. Coyle headed the departmentís discredited and now-defunct Neighborhood Narcotics Unit.
Demoted Utah officer ‘lost his way,’ city attorney tells commission
First Published Jan 30 2014 08:52 am • Last Updated Jan 30 2014 10:16 pm

West Valley City • If harsh discipline for demoted officer John Coyle involved "sending a message" — as a deputy police chief conveyed during a Civil Service Commission hearing for the former leader of the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit — it was an unfair action that should be overturned, the officer’s attorney argued Thursday.

"People are disciplined if they do something wrong," said attorney Erik Strindberg during the appeal hearing for the officer. "That discipline must be proportionate to what they’ve done wrong and it must be consistent [with other officers’ discipline.] The case law does not say one of the factors to be considered is ‘sending a message’ in deciding what the punishment should be."

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Strindberg said during closing arguments Thursday that his client was harshly and unfairly disciplined compared to other officers who were part of the discredited and now-disbanded narcotics unit.

Coyle, who led the unit, was demoted from lieutenant to the rank of officer, which resulted in an annual pay cut of $20,000, Strindberg said.

But people beneath Coyle were given "slaps on the wrist," according to Strindberg, who noted that Coyle’s sergeant was disciplined with 80 hours off without pay.

"That’s a huge, huge, huge difference," he said. "The discipline was neither proportional or consistent."

But city attorney Martha Stonebrook argued Thursday that Coyle "lost his way" as a leader, and was an incompetent supervisor.

"John Coyle had a powerful position," Stonebrook argued. "But unfortunately, he was not a powerful leader."

During Coyle’s two-day appeal hearing, city attorneys worked to paint Coyle as a poor leader, who knowingly let his unit run amok, failed to take responsibility for his actions and had a disregard for the law and police procedures.

On Thursday, Strindberg argued that the city did not present enough evidence to prove the allegations against Coyle: that he allowed cash and property to be taken out of seized vehicles to be use by his unit to purchase drinks and snacks; that he failed to properly supervise the booking of evidence; and failed to supervise the proper use of force.

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"I urge this commission to overturn this decision and put him back to work," Strindberg said in closing.

The three-member commission took the case under advisement Thursday morning.

A city-led probe last year into the narcotics unit unearthed a number of problems, including mishandling of evidence, booking evidence without proper documentation and the possibility of missing drugs and money.

The probe also found that items, such as loose change or a CD in a seized vehicle, were improperly accounted for and that officers kept "trophies" from drug busts for themselves and for use as training aids. As a result of the probe, state and federal prosecutors have tossed more than 120 cases linked to the narcotics unit.

Coyle was cleared of most allegations during an initial internal affairs investigation and no serious discipline — particularly not a demotion — was recommended. But a second investigation, lasting 11 days, resulted in discipline that led to his demotion, which came last August, a day after new West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo was hired, testimony revealed.

Russo said after the closing arguments Thursday that he has not second-guessed the decision to demote Coyle.

"I strongly stand by the decision to demote here," the chief said. "I believe it was the right thing to do."

Russo said Coyle should have been a leader in the unit, even if he was not given proper leadership himself. The chief said he hopes to earn back community trust "one day at a time" — starting with Coyle’s hearing.

"Hopefully, the city prevails and we show accountability," Russo said, adding that he hopes to eventually have a restructured narcotics unit back in place at the police department.

City Manager Wayne Pyle testified during the hearing that Coyle was evasive during an internal affairs interview, and it was Pyle’s impression that Coyle hadn’t taken proper responsibility.

"He seemed to establish a pattern of basically saying, ‘I didn’t know about it’ or ‘I wasn’t responsible for it’ or ‘I hadn’t read it in policy’ … [those] are not indicators of good leadership," Pyle testified.

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