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WEST VALLEY CITY — A scathing updated letter of appeal was filed late Thursday by former West Valley police detective Shaun Cowley.
In September, Cowley filed a four-page letter of appeal over his termination from the department. On Thursday, he updated that with a 41-page letter, detailing why he believes he was made a scapegoat in an effort to save the department's reputation in light of the negative publicity it was receiving from the shooting death of Daneille Willard and an investigation into the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit.
The investigation by the department into Cowley was conducted by people with "obvious conflicts of interest due to self-implication, were aimed at identifying detective Cowley as the sole bad apple in an effort to protect the publicly tarnished image of the West Valley City Police Department, and the complete incompetence of the police administration. Each of these investigations, directed at promoting detective Cowley as the scapegoat, violated detective Cowley’s due process rights," Cowley, with his attorney Lindsay Jarvis, wrote in the appeal.
West Valley City Police are embarking on something that would be a daunting task for any department: hiring 20 new officers. It's as the city makes a comeback from recession budgets and allegations of corruption involving the city's shuttered narcotics unit.
Chief Lee Russo said it could take up to two years to find enough good candidates to reach the staffing level he wants, but the message to college graduates, those with military backgrounds and experienced, out-of-state officers alike is that the department is a great place to work and they can make it even better.p>"Be part of that change, be part of that future – help us become a better agency," Russo said.
One of Russo's aims is to reboot the narcotics unit.
"We want to make sure when we bring that unit back together that we have the right personnel in place from an investigative side, we have the right supervisors over the top paying attention, and our policies and training are all in alignment to make sure we don't have a similar situation to what we already experienced," he said.
Russo acknowledged the unit's troubles had impacted the entire department's public perception, though it was a "compartmentalized" issue that had been handled.
"There's a lot of problems, dishonesty," replied resident Hillary Dalton, when asked Thursday what her perception of West Valley City Police has been.
Dalton also said she recognized the new chief was working to reverse the troubles.
"If they're hiring new officers, hopefully we'll get some new blood in there – there is only a few bad seeds," she said.
Another resident, Craig Marshall, said he was aware of the narcotics unit problems, but he said he has always been satisfied with the service the city's police department has provided.
"I would like to see officers in the neighborhood instead of out doing traffic stops," Marshall said.
Russo said he did want to restore several of the programs that vanished or were diminished during the economic downturn — including those designed to proactively support the community.
Previously, officers had been assigned to neighborhoods to interact with residents, watch members and community leaders.
"What we have to make sure is we have cops that are in the patrol cars answering the 911 calls – that's our most basic duty – and then making sure that we have adequate investigators to follow up on cases," Russo said. "When we get to the community support side of it -- while you don't want to say it's a luxury -- it's not at the core. But it's necessary to drive your agency forward, it's necessary to deal with the substantial problems that the officer in the patrol car can't handle with just a 911 call."
The challenge for police is finding good, qualified candidates. Russo said about half of all the potential workers are disqualified because of an issue like a criminal history or a bad driving record.
Mayor Mike Winder said the chief has been authorized to bring his staff level to 194 officers. He said the city had already hired 16 new officers since the low point for staffing earlier this year.
He echoed Russo's message – that the city was on an upward trajectory.
"We did a nationwide search to find Chief Russo – who is just doing a phenomenal job so far in his first few weeks as police chief," Winder said. "The best days are ahead for the West Valley City Police Department."
In his appeal to the West Valley Civil Service Commission, Cowley said when he was transferred to the narcotics division, West Valley police failed to give him "any sort of formal training related to undercover narcotic investigations."
Cowley claims that not only was he left unsupervised many times, but that other members of the unit taught him the "unwritten rules of operation … including undercover investigations, the use of informants and methods of surveillance," according to his appeal.
In January 2012, Cowley claimed he witnessed officers from the narcotics unit make an "unlawful search and subsequent seizure based on a fraudulent warrant," and then was threatened to be written up for insubordination if he didn't keep his mouth shut about it, according to Cowley's firing.
"It was at this time detective Cowley truly began to recognize the department’s interest, primarily at the push of Chief Buzz Nielsen, in prosecuting drug-related cases, as the West Valley City Police Department personally benefitted financially from these arrests through asset forfeiture proceedings," according to the appeal.
Cowley claims the department seized $100,000 in cash and other property in 2012. He also says the department was more interested in the number of arrests made to boost its stats, "as opposed to the legal parameters used to obtain such arrests," according to the appeal.
As for the evidence from other cases that was found in the trunk of Cowley's vehicle following the Willard shooting, which ultimately lead to the investigation into the unit, Cowley said one of his supervisors was also at fault for not conducting required monthly inspections of his vehicle.
Another one of Cowley's supervisors at the time of the Willard shooting was Capt. Anita Schwemmer, who became the interim chief after Nielsen retired and was chief during the majority of the time the narcotics unit was investigated.
"Acting Chief Schwemmer was responsible for overseeing detective Cowley and ensuring he was trained and supervised appropriately. This is yet another example of a conflict of interest within the West Valley City Police Department’s incompetent and biased investigation into detective Cowley," Jarvis and Cowley wrote in the appeal.
The appeal also claims that Nielsen had actually been placed on administrative leave at the time of his retirement announcement.
The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office determined the Willard shooting was not legally justified and as of Thursday was still considering whether to pursue criminal charges. West Valley officials said Cowley was not fired for the shooting.
An internal investigation found that members of the since-disbanded drug unit misplaced or mishandled drugs and money, kept "trophies" from cases, improperly used confidential informants and used GPS tracking on vehicles without a warrant.
External investigations led to the dismissal of 124 state and federal criminal cases tied to the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit.
Jarvis is requesting at least five days for Cowley's disciplinary hearing. While Cowley is appealing his firing, Jarvis says he has no interest in returning to West Valley police but wants to protect his reputation.
Video Contributing: Andrew Wittenberg