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WVC police chief orders audit of criminal cases filed in past year

Published December 12, 2013 7:28 am

Police • New department-wide probe begins as the investigation into sex-crime cases continues.
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Weeks after West Valley City's new police chief began an audit of the sex-crimes unit for allegedly handling cases inappropriately, he has ordered an audit of all the department's criminal cases for the past 12 months.

"It's all part of the accountability that I want to make sure we have in this department," Police Chief Lee Russo said Tuesday. "It's not that we have a problem that we're responding to, but it's making sure we don't have a problem we're responding to in the future."

Russo said the department-wide audit will update him on various aspects of the cases, including making sure everything has been assigned and progress is being made "so that if a case is left untouched, we can ask why."

Going forward, Russo said he will get monthly updates on criminal cases. He said he could not comment on whether cases were being reviewed under the previous administration.

"I can't really comment on what the previous administration was doing," he said, "but from this day forward, I know what we're going to be doing."

Russo said he had envisioned having such an audit since late August, when he was tapped as the department's new chief, but the notion got pushed to the forefront last month. That is when someone claiming to be a West Valley City employee contacted The Salt Lake Tribune with allegations that at least one detective had mishandled cases involving sex and domestic-violence crimes under the administration headed by Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen, who retired in March. The Tribune then contacted the police department to report the allegation had been raised.

"Given the allegation that was brought forward, I want to get a full understanding of what was happening [with the department-wide audit]," Russo said. "I saw this as an opportunity to move [my goal] forward faster."

Russo took immediate action regarding the sex-crimes unit, announcing that an audit would be conducted into hundreds of the sex/domestic crime unit's cases to ensure they had been handled appropriately.

That audit continued Tuesday, but Russo said he hoped it would be completed by week's end. He said he plans to publicly release the findings next week.

Detectives who worked in the sex-crimes unit were either transferred to other divisions or no longer worked for the department before Russo arrived. No disciplinary action was taken.

Nielsen has previously denied knowledge of any issues with the sex/domestic crimes unit, other than acknowledging the unit had a case backlog.

This week Russo also released a letter written in August 2012 to West Valley City police by the Salt Lake County Children's Justice Center, which works with children who are victims of crimes. Russo said a police employee recentlytold him that the worker had kept a copy of the letter.

The letter, written toa West Valley City police lieutenant by Susanne Mitchell, the director of the Justice Center, says her agency had made "numerous efforts" to resolve problems with investigators and the unit's sergeant, but "we have exhausted those efforts."

"We are requesting your leadership to find effective solutions that support best practice methods in child abuse investigations and interagency team work," Mitchell wrote.

Mitchell specifically expressed concerns about three detectives assigned to investigate sex/domestic violence offenses.

One detective, Ryan Humphrey, who resigned and was charged earlier this year with stealing prescription pain medication, was described in the letter as "confused and disoriented" and "foggy and tired" and was asking a child victim the same questionand confusing key details of the case.

When a child brought up new allegations of domestic violence, a second detective allegedly told a caseworker that he was "not touching that and will not ask further inquiry questions to determine how to attend to this, or report it as a new case."

The Justice Center director also raised concerns about a third detective, who had failed to complete the necessary paperwork so that Child Protective Services could quickly intervene in threeunrelated cases where child sex-crime victims were molested in their homes. The detective also interviewed the child victims at the police department rather than the center and questions were raised as to why the detective was handling the cases "with an obvious lack of training and knowledge of the process," according to the letter.

"[Those involved] were concerned that the case reports were not complete and that the deadline to file may not be met, thus the in-home perpetrators would potentially be released and returning to the home of the victims without a safety plan in place (due to lack of coordination with Child Protective Services)," the letter states.

However, the center also noted that the last detective was not without "motivation or hard work" and "did a good job in navigating uncharted territory."

"He truly did as much as he could and was able to do with the limited knowledge he had about child abuse investigation methods and protocols. Three in-home perpetrator cases in one weekend would be difficult for even the most seasoned sex abuse detective, for him even more so."

The Tribune's whistle-blower alleged that at least one of the three detectives may have been falsifying call-back supplemental reports in order to appear to be closing more cases.

Russo has said that if the department's probe finds any misconduct, appropriate disciplinary action will be taken.

He also said Tuesday he now requires a supervisor to review cases before they are closed or suspended — a procedure that wasn't in place before Russo joined the force.

The allegations against the sex/domestic violence unit are only the latest the department is tackling. In the past year, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office dismissed more than 110 cases linked to the city's now-defunct Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, which faced its own issues for mishandling evidence, illegally using GPS devices and keeping suspects' property as trophies.

Russo said his department is dealing with any lingering issues that may arise, addressing them and moving forward.


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