West Valley City officials express confidence in police
Investigation • D.A. is dismissing 19 criminal cases because of problems involving an officer.
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West Valley City officials said Thursday that they have confidence in their police force despite recent high-profile controversies and believe that appropriate steps are being taken to investigate problems that led to the dismissal of 19 criminal cases.

"I have the utmost confidence in the department," City Manager Wayne Pyle said. "That's not to say we don't have problems, but we'll take care of them."

He said the investigation will be pursued to "the logical end" and appropriate action, including disciplining officers if necessary, will be taken.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Wednesday that he was dismissing 19 criminal cases, most of them drug-related, due to problems involving a West Valley City law enforcement officer. He did not identify the officer, nor did the police department.

But the Fraternal Order of Police, in response to a news organization publicizing the name, released a statement expressing confidence that Officer Shaun Cowley will be exonerated.

Ken Allen, who for 20 years has served on the West Valley City Professional Standards Review Board, a civilian body serving as a watchdog over the police force, called Cowley "an outstanding officer."

"He's very efficient," Allen said. "Otherwise we wouldn't tolerate him."

Allen said he cannot recall any significant citizen complaints against Cowley.

Gill's announcement was another blow to the department, which has come under fire for its handling of the unsolved 2009 Susan Powell disappearance and the shooting death of Danielle Willard in November. Willard was killed by plainclothes detectives Cowley and Kevin Salmon, who were investigating a purported drug deal. Both officers opened fire after Willard allegedly struck Cowley with her car.

Months of silence from police about the Willard case sparked citizen protests outside West Valley City Hall in December and January, where participants demanded answers and honored the dead woman's memory. Willard's mother, Melissa Kennedy, and others following the case also participated in a protest earlier this month at the Utah Capitol, where they called for greater police accountability.

In the midst of the Willard investigation, police Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen announced his retirement March 8, effective immediately. Pyle said the 61-year-old had recently undergone extensive, arduous surgery and was on a long road to recovery.

On Thursday, Pyle reiterated that Nielsen retired for medical reasons.

"He was not forced out," he said.

Mayor Mike Winder also said reviews of police actions are being handled properly.

"As elected officials, we've been working very closely with our city management to make sure we are following professional processes with each of these challenges," Winder said, "and we are confident we are."

He added: "This is a time of transition for the West Valley City Police Department, and I feel our best days are ahead."

Councilman Steve Buhler pointed out that West Valley City brought its concerns about the cases Gill subsequently sought to dismiss to the Salt Lake City Police Department, which launched an outside investigation, and informed Gill's office of the problems.

"I have confidence in the city management and I have confidence in the police officers," Buhler said. "I have confidence the police department always tries to do the right thing. We want the residents to have confidence."

But two community activists — who believe most law enforcement officers do a good job — said Thursday that the dismissal of the criminal cases and the Willard shooting have made some people wary.

The fact that 15 of the 19 dismissed cases involved Latino defendants disturbed Tony Yapias, coordinator of Proyecto de Latino Utah, and Archie Archuleta, president of the board of directors of the Utah Coalition of La Raza.

"We felt all along there's been too many cases of profiling of Latinos [in Utah]," Archuleta said.

West Valley officials deny that police single out defendants based on ethnicity. Pyle said more Latinos were involved in the dismissed cases because many trafficking operations bring drugs in from Latin America.

Yapias noted that many police agencies have worked hard to build relationships with the minority community.

"I think this is a black eye to the West Valley police department," Yapias said of the handling of the dismissed cases. "This is a huge step backward. It creates a tremendous distrust with law enforcement."

Nate Carlisle contributed to this article.

pmanson@sltrib.com

Twitter: @PamelaMansonSLC