FBI joins widening probe of West Valley City police
Investigation • The feds are checking the disbanded narcotics unit for corruption.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

West Valley City • The FBI is investigating the West Valley City Police Department to determine whether there was corruption in its disbanded narcotics unit.

The bureau also will investigate whether there was a cover-up in the November shooting death of 21-year-old Danielle Willard.

"We want to be able to restore public trust in our police department," said Anita Schwemmer, West Valley City's acting police chief, in an afternoon news conference here.

FBI spokeswoman Deborah Bertram confirmed Wednesday that the bureau's Salt Lake City office is investigating the allegations, but declined to comment further.

Although no criminal charges have been filed against any police officers, the investigation in West Valley City is shaping up to be one of the largest police-corruption probes in recent state history. According to a news release issued by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill's office Wednesday, the FBI will help investigate both the Willard shooting and whether any crimes have been committed by members of West Valley City's narcotics unit.

Schwemmer on Wednesday revealed the narcotics unit was disbanded in December because of what she said were "concerns." She did not elaborate other than to note there had been "allegations of department-wide corruption and civil rights violations" raised during separate investigations into the narcotics unit and the Willard shooting.

It was the first time any one at West Valley City said the unit was disbanded. Schwemmer said the six or so officers assigned to the unit have been reassigned.

That doesn't include the two narcotics detectives who shot Willard: Kevin Salmon and Shaun Cowley. They remain on paid leave while the shooting remains under investigation.

Since the Willard shooting, concerns about the department's narcotics unit also were raised after the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office filed to dismiss 19 West Valley City Police Department cases, all but one of them drug related. Gill has said that he no longer believed he could obtain a conviction in the cases and cited unspecified problems with one of its officers as his reason.

West Valley City issued a news release Wednesday afternoon saying it was requesting the FBI investigation. But about an hour later, Gill's office issued its own release saying it had already requested the FBI's help and that the bureau had agreed. Schwemmer said the department had been working with the FBI for several weeks, but formally requested the FBI investigation Wednesday.

Some community activists, including Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah, have also called for a federal investigation of West Valley City police.

Yapias said his group contacted the Justice Department last week, asking for an investigation into whether there are any civil rights violations in any of the cases. He said he was concerned that 15 out of the 19 cases dismissed involved Hispanic defendants.

However, he cautioned against a rush to judgment, suggesting people wait until the final investigation report is released.

"I'm very pleased that [the police] has asked the FBI to review their department," Yapias said. "If you want to win the trust of the community, you want to win the confidence to trust, I think this was a good first step in the right direction for the department."

Schwemmer said that Salt Lake City police were also assisting in one aspect of the investigation, which focuses on one particular narcotics agent, but she would not identify whom that was.

Gill wouldn't rule out Wednesday morning that the investigation could encompass more than one West Valley City officer, but also stressed that it would be "incredibly unfair" to implicate all the officers in the 183-officer department for the "behavior of one or few officers."

"My office is committed to pursuing [the investigation] wherever it goes," he said. "We have an ethical and legal obligation to do that. If you participate in some of the stuff that we are looking at, it triggers affirmative obligations for the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office."

He said his staff has gone through the cases and found the ones that require a particular officer's sole testimony versus other evidence to support them.

He said he couldn't go into specifics Wednesday as to what was being investigated, citing the ongoing probe.

"It's obviously serious enough for us to take the actions we did," he said.

Gill said his office continues an internal audit, which was launched about three weeks ago. He said his office is starting with the most recent cases and working backward.

"At this point, they're [all] ties to West Valley police," he said. "There's no other agency that we're looking at or have any other reason to look at."

Cowley, a detective linked to most of those dismissed cases, also was involved in the Willard shooting. The investigation into that shooting has wrapped up and has been handed over to the District Attorney's Office for screening. Gill is expected to make a ruling on whether Cowley and Salmon were justified in shooting Willard.

West Valley City Council member Steve Buhler said Wednesday that he does not believe the police department is corrupt.

"I believe this is a good step to take to restore the confidence of our residents," Buhler said of the FBI investigation.

"I deeply appreciate the FBI bringing their tremendous resources to ensure that all processes are being followed in our city's police department," said Mayor Mike Winder. "This independent perspective is most helpful and heartily welcomed."

"It's a good idea to clear things up," said Councilman Tom Huynh, adding, "We listen to the people in the city and we want them to have confidence in us."

jstecklein@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sltribjanelle