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West Valley City's acting police chief hopes to calm controversy

Published May 12, 2013 8:12 pm

Acting chief coolly guiding West Valley City police through mayhem of multiple probes.
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West Valley City • Anita Schwemmer chalks up her nearly two decades-long law enforcement career to a pair of intrepid boy detectives.

"I always tease people and say it was too many Hardy Boys books as a child," Schwemmer said with a laugh during a recent interview.

But while the Hardy Boys always had their cases neatly wrapped by the end of the book, the issues Schwemmer has had to deal with since being appointed acting chief in February are much more complex.

"She's been asked to step in at a very difficult time and help hold things together," said West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder, who has known Schwemmer for nearly two decades since she worked as a security guard at his family's farm.

She is shepherding her department through local, state and federal probes involving allegations of corruption and evidence mishandling by the department's narcotics unit that has resulted in 125 cases being dismissed by prosecutors, and nine members of the now-disbanded narcotics unit are on leave.

Plus, there are pending investigations into two officer-involved shootings, one in which a 21-year-old woman was killed during an alleged drug bust, and another that occurred in the department's own lobby when the suspect allegedly pulled a gun.

Dressed in a dark blue police uniform, Schwemmer, by turns, exhibits humor, poise and honesty when talking about the West Valley City Police Department and what she hopes to accomplish while at the helm.

People who know Schwemmer use adjectives like "extraordinary," "calm," "professional" and "personable" to describe the 54-year-old woman who vaulted overnight from relative obscurity to arguably become the state's most high-profile police chief.

"Can you imagine all eyes being on you like that?" asked Chief Robby Russo of the Cottonwood Heights Police Department. "She will emerge from this a better administrator because calm seas don't make a great sailor."

Schwemmer is filling in on a temporary basis until West Valley City leaders select a permanent replacement for Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen, who retired in March because of health problems.

Stay-at-home mom to cop • Schwemmer said she had always been interested in being a cop, but got the " 'no daughter of mine is going to be a cop' speech from my dad when I turned 18 and was going to college."

So she put that dream on hold and focused on family and motherhood. (She's been married to her husband, Mike, for nine years, and is the proud mother of three children and four stepchildren, and also has nine grandchildren.)

But she never forgot her dream.

When she was in her 30s, she was talking to a neighbor who was a Salt Lake City police officer and told him: "I've always been fascinated by your job. I've always wanted to go into law enforcement, but hey, I'm like 33. That's so old."

Schwemmer says she now recalls that statement about her age and just laughs. And her father has become one of her biggest supporters, Schwemmer said.

Her neighbor encouraged her to go for it.

So she left her gig as a stay-at-home mom and took a job with West Jordan animal control while she put herself through Utah's Peace Officer Standards and Training program.

When she was 34, she was hired by the West Valley City to work the graveyard patrol shift. She later helped with training in the K-9 unit and worked as a substitute DARE officer, which have been her two favorite jobs.

"The elementary school kids are just a blast, and they have so many interesting and unique ideas," she said.

Climbing the ladder • During the past two decades, Schwemmer moved up the ranks, reaching deputy chief of financial operations before being tapped by Nielsen to fill in during his planned medical leave.

She has twice been captain over the narcotics unit, including from August 2009 to November 2010, a period of time that is part of the district attorney's probe. As captain, Schwemmer said she oversaw several divisions and was responsible for reviewing paperwork and finances, but the day-to-day operations were the responsibility of the unit supervisors — two of whom are currently on leave.

"If I had known what was occurring, I would have ensured it was corrected then," she said, noting that she understands there could be a public perception that a number of officers might have known about the problems but ignored them. She said that perception is inaccurate.

"This had to do with only a few officers, and the most serious problems weren't something they were advertising," she said.

After Nielsen's sudden retirement, City Manager Wayne Pyle said Schwemmer was asked to stay on to provide consistency within the department.

"She's doing a good job, being put in the middle of an incredibly difficult situation," Pyle said. "What she has brought to the table is experience. She knows the department. She brings a calm demeanor and a calm influence in a very volatile situation."

Schwemmer said she is well prepared.

"I've been very appropriately trained and mentored my entire career to be able to step in and be able to do this job," she said.

Restoring trust • Recently, she's been spotted flanking her officers during news conferences or addressing the public directly. But one of her most pressing goals is rebuilding trust with the community.

"I think the first step in restoring trust is to have that good line of communication with the community," she said.

That's also true when it comes to building and repairing morale within the department as officers try to forge ahead as the scandal swirls.

"I think she's the best person that they could have in this job right now because she's Switzerland," Russo said. "She's just taking the information and dealing with it accordingly."

Russo, who has known Schwemmer for close to 20 years, said the challenge is going to be pulling the metaphorical "weeds" — ridding the department of the small percentage of officers who are problems. "I think she's just trying to return it to a place of respect and dignity and integrity."

Schwemmer said she stresses that "as long as they're professional and do their job, the community is there for [the officers]."

"I'm extremely proud of the men and women [who work here]," she said. "They work extremely hard. They train extremely hard, and they do try and do the best job that they can."

She said the department takes extremely seriously any allegations of wrongdoing and takes the appropriate steps if it's determined an individual should no longer be an officer.

"[The officers currently on leave] are also entitled to their due process," Schwemmer added. "We do have to follow employment law ourselves and ensure what each individual officer's actions were. We will deal with those actions individually. We are in that process right now."

The future • Schwemmer's goals include improving professionalism and the way officers interact with the public.

She said she stresses three main points with officers:

Do what's right • "If you do your job correctly and do what's right, then it's easy for us to stand up behind you, and it's easy for the public to trust you and know what you're doing and understand why you're doing what you're doing."

Treat people right • If you want respect, you have to give it in return.

The "wow factor," going above and beyond what's normally expected • If someone's home has been burglarized, walk them through the home and help them better secure it. If someone is stranded in a snowstorm, even outside city limits, stop and help them.

Schwemmer said the mayor and city council members have done an excellent job of supporting the police department, "and to help us know what the community is thinking and feeling so that we can address those issues."

She happens to be the first woman tapped to head a large police department in Utah.

But Schwemmer said that after discussing it with her family, she doesn't want to be the chief permanently.

"I still plan on staying with the department and helping the department move forward, but not in the chief's role," she said.


Twitter: @sltribjanelle






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