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Top stories of 2013: WVC Police Department

By Sandra Yi | Posted - Dec 31st, 2013 @ 8:51pm

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WEST VALLEY CITY — One of Utah's largest police forces came under scrutiny multiple times in 2013. The deadly shooting of a young woman by West Valley police officers, resulted in a number of investigations and major changes for its troubled force.

Danielle Willard was shot Nov. 2, 2012 by West Valley detective, Shawn Cowley. Her death sparked a controversial 9-month investigation.

"Danielle was a very, very bright light in my soul," said Willard's mother, Melissa Kennedy. "I'm mad. I'm incredibly mad that this is taking this long to get this taken care of."

Kennedy joined supporters outside West Valley City Hall, and demanded criminal charges against the officers who pulled the trigger. Since her daughter's death, Kennedy has been an outspoken advocate for police accountability.

It was Kennedy's persistence that kept her daughter's case in the public eye and resulted in greater public scrutiny for a troubled police force. Willard's shooting led to multiple investigations against the now disbanded drug unit and the dismissal of more than 120 criminal cases.

Then in August, prosecutors ruled Willard's shooting was unjustified.

"Based on the forensic information we have, that the story we have presented to us is not corroborated because the angles and trajectories," said Salt Lake County District attorney, Sam Gill.

Later in August, the police force announced a new leader at its helm. Chief Lee Russo said he would make the Willard case a priority. He also said he'd review another of the city's high-profile and widely criticized cases — the disappearance of Susan Powell.

"They might not be happy that something's happened, but they can respect that they can understand that we're not going to be perfect all the time," Russo said. "But, we're going to do the best we can."

Two weeks later, West Valley City Police fired former detective Cowley who shot and killed Willard, although the agency said his dismissal was not connected to Willard's death.

While most members of the former narcotics unit have returned to duty, Detective Kevin Salmon, who was also involved in the shooting, remains on paid administrative leave. Prosecutors have yet to decide if criminal charges will be filed against Salmon and Cowley.

Meantime, Chief Russo continues to work for greater transparency and accountability. A review of more than 200 cases from the former sex crimes unit revealed problems with 15 of them, mostly misdemeanor domestic-related crimes.

Russo also ordered another audit of the agency's felony and misdemeanor cases over the past year. He said the purpose is to ensure none have fallen through the cracks.

"What do we have going on inside of the department? What kind of cases? How are we tracking them? Are we giving those cases attention and following up appropriately?" Russo said.

Melissa Kennedy, who has filed a wrongful death lawsuit, said all the changes are a start. But she said she won't be happy until former detectives Cowley and Salmon are charged with murder. At the rally in December, she said she'll keep fighting for justice, despite the sad reality of her case.

"No matter how much work I put into this, she's not coming back," Kennedy said.

The District Attorney is expected to make a decision on criminal charges against Salmon and Cowley in the coming weeks.


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