Quantcast

Panel overturns demotion for West Valley City lieutenant

Published May 15, 2014 12:52 pm

Ruling • Lt. John Coyle violated police policies, but Civil Service Commission says demotion to rank-and-file was "unwarranted."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated.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 city's Civil Service Commission overturned the demotion of the lieutenant who oversaw the troubled West Valley City Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, and ordered the department to pay back his lost wages.

Lt. John Coyle — who had been demoted to a rank-and-file officer after an investigation spurred by detectives shooting and killing Danielle Willard — showed little reaction as the decision was announced by the commission Thursday morning. He declined to discuss the decision with a reporter.

The Civil Service Commission found that while Coyle violated police policies, his demotion was "unwarranted."

An attorney for Coyle, Erik Strindberg, said the commission's written decision was "very favorable" to Coyle. Strindberg said the decision shows Coyle is a dedicated police officer who committed minor policy violations.

"There were some unfortunate things that happened in West Valley City with that narcotics unit, and I firmly believe they have been blown out of proportion," Strindberg said. He clarified he was not referring to the Willard shooting.

West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo said he was disappointed with the decision, though he noted that the commission agreed Coyle had violated policies.

"We feel strongly the decision that was made for demotion was appropriate in this matter," Russo said.

He said the city's attorneys would review the decision and "are preparing for an appeal."

Meanwhile, Russo said, Coyle would immediately be reinstated to lieutenant, but likely would be assigned to an administrative job in the chief's office. That job might entail reviewing police reports and conducting inspections, Russo said.

Russo said it was unclear whether West Valley City would immediately repay the back wages or wait for the outcome of the appeal. Coyle was demoted in 2013 and contended the demotion would cost him $20,000 a year in pay.

Willard's mother, Melissa Kennedy, attended Coyle's appeal hearing in January, but didn't learn of Thursday's announcement until a friend posted something about it on Facebook. In a telephone interview from her home in Vancouver, Wash., she decried the decision and said she holds Coyle as responsible for her daughter's death as the detectives who shot her.

"He just let them get away with whatever they wanted to get away with," Kennedy said.

Kennedy said the lack of accountability continued with Thursday's decision.

"It's a slap in the face to me and to Danielle," Kennedy said. "That's what this is."

Commissioner Dianne Niebuhr announced the decision at the Civil Service Commission's monthly meeting on Thursday. She said the "preponderance of evidence" showed Coyle violated West Valley City police policies on property handling, reporting use-of-force and supervising subordinates.

But Niebuhr called the violations "technical in nature," and said Coyle's demotion was "unwarranted."

In the written ruling, the commission focused on how the sergeant in the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, Ron Johnson, received only an 80-hour suspension, even though he was the "front-line supervisor." Johnson also had received a 40-hour suspension in 2005 for neglect of duty. Coyle's discipline history consisted of a reprimand for a car accident in 2009.

Commissioners wrote that the allegations against Johnson and other members of the unit were similar to those against Coyle. Yet Coyle was the only member of the unit to receive a demotion.

Shaun Cowley, one of the two detectives who shot and killed Willard, was fired over evidence that was found in his trunk rather than in the department's evidence storage. He is waiting for a hearing before the West Valley City Civil Service Commission to appeal his firing.

"Lt. Coyle was negligent in assuring that the policy was followed," commissioners wrote. "However, there was not evidence presented by the City that this failure to ensure the policy was followed undermined the moral and effectiveness of WVCPD or damaged public confidence."

An investigation into the now-disbanded Neighborhood Narcotics Unit was ignited Nov. 2, 2012, when Cowley and Det. Kevin Salmon shot and killed Willard, 21, during what they suspected was an illegal drug transaction.

As a result of the investigation into the narcotics unit, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill dismissed about 120 criminal cases, though some of those defendants still lost seized cash and property.

Six detectives, including Johnson, were disciplined, while Coyle was demoted and Cowley was terminated. The other detective who shot Willard, Salmon, remains on paid leave in connection with the shooting.

During Coyle's two-day appeal hearing in January, Eric Bunderson, an attorney for West Valley City, told the commission that Coyle's failures hurt the police department.

"He could not bear to accept any of the responsibility of this failure," Bunderson said. "He blamed this failure on the very officers he was charged with leading."

Strindberg argued West Valley City's investigation relied too heavily upon the word of Cowley.

Strindberg contended Cowley started making accusations about conduct in the unit to save himself. Strindberg also complained that Coyle could not get a fair hearing because other detectives in the unit asserted the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify.

When Coyle testified at the hearing, he said he was unaware of policies such as filing a report when a detective displays a gun. He admitted he could have established stricter expectations for his sergeant.

"I have the ability to be a good supervisor here," Coyle told the commission. "I would want to move forward. That's what I wanted to do was move forward and learn from this."

The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office has deemed the shooting of Willard was not legally justified. No criminal charges have been filed against Cowley or Salmon in connection with the shooting.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle