SALT LAKE CITY — A federal court of appeals on Tuesday ruled that the West Valley City Police Department did not violate due process in firing former officer Shaun Cowley after he shot and killed a woman in 2012.
The decision from the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals rejected Cowley’s claims that he was unjustly fired after blowing the whistle on systemic policy violations in his unit. The former officer also claimed that West Valley City and a detective with the police department advocated for criminal charges against him in retaliation for the whistleblowing.
Cowley fatally shot 21-year-old Danielle Willard in November 2012 while working undercover in the department’s neighborhood narcotics unit. The department opened an internal investigation into Cowley after finding unbooked evidence, including drugs and money, in his police car after the shooting.
In an interview conducted in March 2013 as part of the internal investigation, Cowley claimed that he had witnessed systemic misconduct in the neighborhood narcotics unit, including policy violations by officers while working with confidential informants, mishandling of evidence, and regularly absent supervisors.
He was fired in September 2013 after the internal investigation turned up evidence suggesting Cowley had violated department policies on multiple occasions, including an instance when he reportedly checked out $1,313 in cash and about 60 grams of a white powdery substance from the evidence locker and didn’t return them, according to the court decision.
The former officer was charged in 2014 with manslaughter, a second-degree felony, after the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office determined that Cowley’s use of deadly force was not justified in shooting Willard. The case was dismissed by a state district court judge, however, following a preliminary hearing in October 2014.
Cowley appealed his firing and was reinstated as an officer with West Valley police in June of 2015. He resigned three days later after reaching an agreement on back pay with the city.
The court decision released Tuesday rejected Cowley’s allegation that his due process was violated when he was fired in 2013. The former officer claimed that city manager Wayne Pyle had already decided Cowley would be fired before his pre-termination hearing, and that Pyle had ordered deputy police chief Larry Marx to fire Cowley even though Marx did not believe Cowley should be fired.
In its decision, the appeals court pointed to evidence indicating that Marx had indeed believed firing Cowley was a reasonable course of action.
The court also rejected Cowley’s claims that West Valley City and a police detective with the department advocated for the district attorney’s office to file criminal charges against Cowley in retaliation for Cowley “ratting out” others in the neighborhood narcotics unit for misconduct.
Cowley had claimed the detective was part of a panel that recommended criminal charges for Cowley, but the court found that the detective was not, in fact, on that panel.
“Further,” the court decision states, “the record makes clear that WVC took care to avoid weighing in on the DA’s decision to bring charges.”
Cowley first filed a lawsuit against West Valley City, its police department, Pyle, then-Chief Lee Russo and former chiefs Thayle “Buzz” Nielsen and Anita Schwimmer, District Attorney Sim Gill, and four other West Valley officers in February of 2016, claiming his rights to due process, unreasonable search and seizure, and equal protection were violated.
His original lawsuit included nine causes of action, reduced to six in an amended complaint filed a month later. Three of those causes of actions were dismissed by U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins in July 2016.
Cowley and West Valley City settled on one of Cowley’s causes of action in March 2018, which alleged that Cowley’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated when police searched his locker at work.