WEST VALLEY CITY — The fatal officer-involved shooting of Danielle Willard and other issues plaguing the West Valley Police Department has now resulted in requests for two independent FBI investigations.
The department announced Wednesday that it has asked the FBI to conduct an investigation of its drug unit to determine whether there is "systemic corruption."
At the same time, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office also asked the FBI to look into West Valley's issues for their own investigation.
"We have asked them to determine whether there is any systemic corruption within the narcotics unit and also to see if there was any coverup in the Danielle Willard officer-involved shooting," acting West Valley Police Chief Anita Schwemmer said. "In general, we're concerned about the allegations that are out there and want to have the opportunity for an outside and independent review.
"We feel that by involving the FBI and being transparent in this, that we'll be able to find answers for everyone," Schwemmer said. "We want to be able to restore public trust in our police department."
The police department has been a target of heavy public scrutiny following the controversial shooting of Willard, 21, and a subsequent decision by the district attorney's office to dismiss 19 drug-related cases that were investigated by one of the same detectives who shot Willard.
The department's announcement quickly drew fire from Mark Geragos, the high-profile Los Angeles-based attorney who represents Melissa Kennedy, Willard's mother.
Geragos said he would like "to see someone in the police department say that under oath" because he believes the "description of what they're asking the FBI is false."
Willard was shot Nov. 2, 2012, during an undercover drug investigation. Detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon, the two involved in the shooting, have been on administrative leave since the incident.
The 19 criminal cases were dismissed by District Attorney Sim Gill after he became aware of unspecified issues with the West Valley department that the Salt Lake City Police Department was investigating. West Valley police had asked Salt Lake police to conduct an independent investigation into four of its criminal cases.
Gill said Wednesday that his office is dealing with "three distinct but overlapping issues" that he wants the FBI to review:
- The first is the investigation into the Willard shooting. Gill has asked the FBI to "assist in reviewing any collateral issues" related to the shooting.
- The second issue concerned "potential criminal violations" possibly committed by a single West Valley police officer. Although neither Gill nor West Valley have named the officer, Cowley was the lead investigator in the 19 cases that were dismissed because of credibility issues.
- The third issue is "the potential widening of the scope of potential criminal wrongdoing" by the West Valley police narcotics unit.
During the course of investigations into Willard and the drug cases, "allegations of department-wide corruption and civil rights violations have been made," the police department wrote in a prepared statement.
Schwemmer was asked Wednesday about morale among the officers in light of the multiple ongoing investigations.
"One of things that we have stressed with them is we are doing this because we want to be able to clear our good name and their good name, and we feel by doing this we will be able to do so," she said.
We wanted to be able to take a step back because of the accusations and allegations without putting further pressure on those investigators, and be able to take a look at our policies, our procedures and the way our unit was operating.
–Acting Chief Anita Schwemmer, WVCPD
When asked if she felt the department had lost the public's trust, she said: "Unfortunately, I think that some of our community members feel that way. However, I don't think that's the general attitude of the community."
Schwemmer also noted that the department's Neighborhood Narcotics Unit was disbanded in December because of unspecified concerns that will now be part of the FBI investigation.
"The reason is the same reason that we're asking for the outside look at the department — because we wanted to be able to take a step back because of the accusations and allegations without putting further pressure on those investigators, and be able to take a look at our policies, our procedures and the way our unit was operating," she said.
The acting chief said the FBI will have full access to the department's files, "so they can review any file they want to review."
Gill commended West Valley police for asking for an FBI review while also noting that "any allegations of wrongdoing by one or some should not taint the honorable daily actions" of the department as a whole.
Wednesday's announcement comes one week after West Valley Mayor Mike Winder called for modernization of the city's Professional Standards Review Board.
Nearly five months after the Willard shooting, the department completed its own investigation and handed over its materials to Gill's office for review. Gill has not yet determined whether the detectives were justified in shooting the unarmed woman.
West Valley City is also launching a nationwide search for a new police chief after Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen retired in early March after 33 years of service, citing extensive surgery and a need for time to recuperate. Winder said the city has an opportunity now to "set a new tone" in the department with a new chief.