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Former West Valley City Police Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen is confident there's no systemic problem within the narcotics unit he shut down to audit. The only issue he was aware of before retiring in March was with Detective Shaun Cowley, who has had 19 cases that he had investigated dismissed.
In an interview with KUTV 2News, Nielsen revealed that he ordered an internal audit of the unit after Cowley and fellow Detective Kevin Salmon's fatal shooting of Danielle Willard in November during a drug-related bust. During the course of the probe into that shooting, investigators found evidence from four unrelated cases in the trunk of Cowley's vehicle, dating back to about a year ago, which should have been in the evidence room, Nielsen said.
"There was nothing criminal there, but the procedure bothered me. … You don't do a case and put evidence in a trunk," Nielsen said.
Lindsay Jarvis, Cowley's attorney, clarified that the evidence was in clearly marked evidence bags inside a lock box that only Cowley had a key to. She added that Cowley was not using the drugs either a toxicology report showed he had no drugs in his system the night of Willard's death.
She also said that the FBI investigated the narcotics unit in November after a defense attorney raised concerns about the way a case was handled. That investigation concluded in early December and found that the unit has a lack of training and supervision, Jarvis said.
Debbie Bertram, spokeswoman for the FBI, declined to comment because they are engaged in an ongoing federal investigation. Attempts to reach West Valley City police late Wednesday night for comment on the 2012 investigation were unsuccessful.
After finding the evidence in Cowley's trunk, Nielsen shut down the narcotics unit in December and audited each of its officers and their cases from the past three years. He also called for an internal investigation of the special crimes unit, which handles specific problems like a burglary or auto-theft rings, since they come across drugs as well.
The West Valley City Police Department eventually asked Salt Lake City police and the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office to investigate as well. Many problems were administrative a late report, a missed time sheet but whenever there is cause for concern, they go outside the department, Nielsen said.
"We found some of those discrepancies, all administrative and minor, but when we have a case and don't know where the money is or... where the drugs are, then there's red flags everywhere," Nielsen said. "We found the money and the drugs, they were put in a different case and different evidence thing. It was a procedural thing, [but] enough to cause us some concerns."
That outside investigation led District Attorney Sim Gill to dismiss 19 cases, each involving Cowley, earlier this year. Authorities haven't ruled out that the probe could extend to other officers, and on Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney's Office also announced that it will no longer prosecute eight cases involving the narcotics unit. The announcement was the first indication that issues with the unit extend beyond the local level.
Gill confirmed last week that his office is examining more cases that could be dismissed, a number that might exceed 100.
Following the more recent developments, the FBI has launched another investigation into the WVCPD to determine whether there was corruption in its narcotics unit and whether there was a cover-up in Willard's shooting death.
The city may fire Cowley before the new FBI investigation is over, which Jarvis has criticized as premature.
Jarvis confirmed that her client was involved in "policy violations" but that none were criminal in nature. She also said those unspecified "policy violations" were widespread across the narcotics unit, and alleged that he did not receive the training he needed when he became a detective on the narcotics squad.
But Nielsen rebuffs the claim. He wasn't privy to what training Cowley received once he was in the unit, but he assured that all of the city's officers receive "top-notch" training.
Nielsen needed surgery and had to retire to recover from it before the audit was finished. But as far as he knew before he left, the only issue seemed to be with Cowley, he said.
Acting Police Chief Anita Schwemmer has also said that officers selected for the narcotics unit "are not rookie officers" and that they receive training. She declined to discuss any specific details of Cowley's case.
"We're going to be fine," Nielsen said. "We have good officers, good detectives. … It hurts our credibility a bit, but we're right on top of it."