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Former West Valley drug unit lieutenant appeals demotion

By Emiley Morgan | Posted - Jan 27th, 2014 @ 5:52pm

WEST VALLEY CITY — A former West Valley police lieutenant who oversaw the department's embattled narcotics unit and was demoted, took his appeal to the city's civil service commission Monday.

John Coyle was lieutenant over the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, which was disbanded in December 2012 amid an investigation that found officers had misplaced or mishandled drugs and money, kept items seized from cases, improperly used confidential informants and used GPS tracking on vehicles without a warrant. A total of 126 felony cases tied to the unit were dismissed in state and federal courts.

"What you have before you today, commissioners, is a failure of leadership," West Valley City Attorney Eric Bunderson told the panel Monday. "A big enough failure of leaderships to get 126 cases dismissed. … (This) hurt public trust in our police department and hurt morale in our police department."

Coyle was cleared after an initial internal investigation into the unit but was demoted two levels from lieutenant to officer following a second investigation. Bunderson cited a failure to supervise proper documentation and booking of evidence, failure to supervise the use of force and a practice of allowing money to be taken from cars during cleanings to be used for snacks and drinks as the reason for the demotion.

But he said Coyle "wasn't singled out" and noted that seven other officers had already been disciplined in some way when Coyle was demoted in August.

Erik Strindberg, Coyle's attorney, said the demotion was significant and led to a $20,000 salary decrease. He said his client had a "stellar" history in the department and questioned why others, including the sergeant beneath Coyle, weren't similarly disciplined.

The city … painted itself into corner where it had to take severe discipline against Mr. Coyle.

–Erik Strindberg, John Coyle's attorney

"All the other members of the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit had prior disciplines yet they got off much lighter than my client did," he said. "A two-step demotion is not proportional, not consistent with the discipline of others, including Sgt. (Michael) Johnson who received 80 hours (suspension) and retained his rank."

Deputy Chief Mike Powell testified that the investigation into the unit began after detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon shot and killed Danielle Willard, 21, during an undercover drug investigation. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill later determined that the shooting was not legally justified and has yet to decide whether to file criminal charges against them.

Powell said Cowley made allegations against others in his unit, saying the supervisors either participated in or knew of the misconduct.

He testified that Coyle was cleared of allegations of theft, extortion, mishandling of cellphones and ID cards and using illegal immigrants as informants without authorization. But there were issues with the way evidence was being documented and transported, and Powell said Coyle wasn't properly reviewing and reporting incidents when guns were used or displayed by the unit's officers, per department policy. Coyle was also aware of, and took part in, taking change from cars that were seized and using the money to buy drinks.

Ultimately, Powell said, the department felt the problematic behavior found in the unit "would not have occurred if Lt. Coyle had properly supervised his subordinates."

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Strindberg said the second investigation that led to the demotion lasted 11 days and Coyle was neither interviewed nor made aware of it. He argued that the city was looking for someone to blame for the department's misconduct.

"The city … painted itself into corner where it had to take severe discipline against Mr. Coyle," he said.

Police Chief Lee Russo testified that he was hired Aug. 27 — the day before the letter was given to Coyle about the demotion. He said he reviewed the decision with police administration, city attorneys and the city manager.

"I feel confident in the city's case that was presented to me," he said.

The chief said lieutenants are largely self-supervising and that he considers them among the most powerful individuals in the department because of their decision-making responsibilities. He admitted he did not interview Coyle or other members of the unit about the demotion decision.

Strindberg planned to call a number of officers who worked in the drug unit, but at least four of them indicated they would invoke their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination if called. Coyle's hearing will continue Tuesday. Strindberg said his client is on the witness list, but wouldn't say if he plans to testify.

Coyle is named in two lawsuits, including a wrongful death suit filed by Willard's family and a civil complaint filed by two former suspects arrested by members of the narcotics unit who say their civil rights were violated.

Cowley was fired in September. In announcing the decision, Russo said the termination was not connected to Cowley's role in Willard's death, but to a "pattern of behavior" that undermined investigations and couldn't be corrected through training.

In October, Cowley and his attorney, Lindsay Jarvis, filed a scathing 41-page letter with the West Valley Civil Service Commission. In it, Cowley claimed he was instructed by the unit to use the "unwritten rules of operation … including undercover investigations, the use of informants and methods of surveillance."

Cowley will having a hearing with the commission later this year in an attempt to be reinstated.

After Coyle's hearing wraps up Tuesday, Bunderson said the commission will then decide to either affirm or deny the demotion.

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