Among all the questions surrounding the conduct of West Valley City police officers and management of the department, there is one that can and should be answered, and soon: Is it time for the city to disband its police operations and instead join the Salt Lake County Unified Police Department?
Such a step would have widespread ramifications for police officers, the city and its residents and should not be done without thorough study. But it should be seriously considered.
There are reasons to doubt the ability of West Valley City to provide high-quality police services to its residents. The office of the U.S. attorney for Utah says it will dismiss eight federal cases, and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has dismissed 19, all because of poor investigation by the city's now-defunct narcotics squad. The total number in the county could rise to 100.
The fatal shooting of unarmed drug user Danielle Willard by plainclothes detectives in November has not been adequately explained or justified. The four-year investigation into the disappearance of Susan Powell has yielded no arrests or information that might have helped prevent the murders of her two young children.
One city detective, Shaun Cowley, was involved in the botched drug investigations and the fatal shooting. His attorney says Cowley was simply behaving in the accepted manner of the narcotics squad.
A citizens committee charged with investigating citizen complaints and police conduct has kept its deliberations secret. Its members are nominated by the police chief and an officer sits on the board, casting doubt on the panel's ability to provide objective oversight. Repeated calls for an accounting of the Willard shooting brought no answers. Cowley, and probably other narcotics officers, apparently were allowed to make their own rules. The police chief who could provide some insight has resigned.
The response of the mayor and City Council to possible corruption and the lack of oversight has been lukewarm. The council will consider some tweaking of the review board, and Cowley may lose his job. But that is not enough.
If there were no alternative to a city-run police department, then city leaders should at least look for a tough new police chief from outside who could clean up this mess. But there is another option: the well-run county UPD. The WVC department undoubtedly comprises many fine officers who do not deserve to lose their jobs. But the UPD would need to hire more officers to cover West Valley and it seems certain many would be retained.
It could be the best solution.