West Valley City police push through adversity
Controversy • Despite criticism, the beleaguered department has support of residents.
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West Valley City • The night plays out like a script from a bad movie.

A man comes home and discovers his wife is spending an evening with her co-worker, so he grabs a hatchet and attempts to hack the co-worker to death.

In response, the co-worker wrestles away the hatchet and beats the living daylights out of the husband.

By the time West Valley City police swoop to the rescue, the husband is covered in his own blood. He's eventually taken to a hospital for a mental evaluation.

It's a typical night for West Valley City Police Department patrol officers serving residents in the state's second-largest city, where assaults were among the most common type of crime in 2012.

But recent controversy in the department has put officers under intense scrutiny. Despite the unexpected adversity, they are determined to protect the public and continue to do their police work.

Navigating the perfect storm • Officers in the 190-member department suddenly find themselves under a critical eye — from federal investigators to city mayoral candidates.

It's not unexpected attention after the department's Neighborhood Narcotics Unit was disbanded and nine of its officers were placed on leave. The news came amid state and federal probes into allegations of malfeasance, racial profiling and corruption after the fatal shooting of a 21-year-old woman during an alleged drug bust.

State and federal prosecutors have dismissed more than 125 cases involving narcotics unit members.

The department was additionally crippled by unexpected staffing shortages, which resulted in reductions in the popular Community Services Section, which generates many of the positive interactions between police and community members.

Then there are the plethora of candidates running for city office on the vague promise to "fix" the department, which has no chief after the sudden retirement of its longtime leader.

The latest incident to garner public attention surfaced last week, when an officer, not linked to the narcotics unit, was accused of stealing 22 morphine pills from a deceased cancer patient during a police call.

But despite everything, members of the force said at the department's core are a number of exceptional officers who are dedicated to the community they serve and determined to restore trust in even the most suspicious of minds.

"We always feel horrible when someone wearing the same uniform as us makes some bad choices," said Officer Jeff McNees, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, West Valley City Lodge, speaking in general of departmental issues. "We know it's going to take 100 good things to make up for that officer doing that one bad thing."

But he said officers are up for the challenge.

"We're the front line out there dealing with the public," McNees said. "If you can't go out there with a smile and treat people well, then you need to probably find something else to do."

Praise from within • Despite the current troubles, many longtime residents stand behind their department, choosing to focus on the good that has happened through the years rather than the negatives of the past few months.

"We are still getting some pretty positive feedback from the public," McNees said. "Especially from the long-term citizens. I've been pretty surprised about how positive they've been."

Those good interactions, said resident Renee Layton, who operates a Neighborhood Watch group, are often understated and don't gain the same attention as allegations of corruption.

"I get fired up," she said of the criticism against the department. "I just get so upset. People … they have no idea how much our officers really do care. It's the actions of a few that get more attention, than do the quiet acts of service that go beyond their jobs."

Many of her pleasant interactions have come with officers connected to the Community Services Section, which helps groups run Neighborhood Watch programs and promotes crime prevention.

She said officers have come on their own time to help her neighborhood, whether with graffiti removal or to enforce speed limits.

"It's sad because there are so many officers that are amazing that take time to care about the individual neighborhoods and people," she said. "And that care about the relationships between the police department and the residents. So much negativity takes away from all the good that happens."

Layton is disappointed that the section's staffing has been severely cut, though she understands the limitations the department faces.

"I have hope and faith that they will resolve the way community services was done before," Layton said. "It fostered relationships between the community and the police department, which I think is essential because [it fostered trust]."

West Valley City Deputy Chief Mike Powell said the department will bring that unit back up to full staffing levels as soon as possible.

"The Community Services Section is a very important unit," he said. "It's very important in having that relationship with the community."

But sudden staff drops necessitated the reduction to the unit so those officers could be shifted to street patrol.

As of Wednesday, the department had 10 staff vacancies, not including the nine narcotics unit officers who remain on paid leave. The department already has hired 14 more during the past four months, who are now starting to hit the pavement, Powell said.

The department, he added, had the best applicant pool in years when it closed in May.

"This last application period we were very, very pleased with the number, and I'd definitely say the quality of applicants."

McNees said one of the department's strengths is that no matter how short staffed, it ensures officers are fully trained before sending them out.

Making it work • West Valley City is arguably one of the toughest Utah cities to patrol.

McNees said officers answer about three times as many calls for service as the next-busiest department.

Then there's the large socioeconomic divide. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011, more than 20 percent of residents were living below the poverty line (the statewide average was about 10 percent).

Drug crimes were among the most prevalent offenses in 2012, a Salt Lake Tribune analysis found. Perhaps fed by the poverty rates and drugs, reports of thefts — both vehicle and other types — were common, as were vandalism offenses.

A deep-seated pride in West Valley City and the department has prompted many officers to hang in there, McNees said. "We-can-do-more-with-less mentality — it makes a pretty strong bond."

That connection, he emphasized, doesn't extend deep enough to cover up wrongdoing in the department.

Most recently, a West Valley City officer turned in a colleague for allegedly stealing pills from a deceased man.

"It's not the blue veil of secrecy," McNees said. "I have to feed my family. If you're going to put me in the position where that is put in jeopardy, don't expect me to lie for you. That is the 99 percent rule. The rule is that if somebody has put you in that position, you're the one that is going to be accepted by your peers for telling the truth."

Quelling the critics • Accolades aren't only coming from within the city's boundaries.

Despite what could be seen as an antagonistic relationship after the dismissal of 120-odd cases linked to the narcotics unit, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said overall the city's police department is "doing very well" — when removing the now-disbanded drug squad from the equation.

"They go out there and put their life in harm's way and go out there and do their job ethically and responsibly and by the rules," he said, "and they need to be commended for it."

Gill said those dismissed cases aside, the department files cases just as solid as the rest in his purview, remains professional toward his staff and responds to subpoenas with the same frequency as other departments.

"They're responding very professionally and competently," he said, "and there has not been a slippage in quality or a noticeable difference."

Another outspoken critic of the department has been Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah, who represented minority groups in a meeting between a division of the Justice Department and WVCPD.

"We're satisfied," Yapias said, "that the everyday traffic cop or police officer who's out there on the streets is doing a good job."

But with a large minority population and potential language barriers — of the city's 2011 population of 117,274, about 40 percent of West Valley City residents said they spoke a language other than English (many of those said they spoke English less than "very well") — Yapias said the department needs to continue to be inclusive. That includes following through on a pledge to translate more police documents — such as officer-complaint forms — into Spanish, Yapias said. (That's currently underway, Powell said.)

"Not every police officer there is a bad apple," Yapias said. "If there is a bad apple there, they're going to take care of that. They've made a commitment to do that. As residents, we need to make sure we identify those bad apples."

jstecklein@sltrib.comTwitter @sltribjanelle —

Timeline of key events

November 2012 — Two WVCPD officers shoot and kill a 21-year-old woman during an alleged drug bust; two narcotics unit officers are placed on leave.

March 2013 — WVCPD Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen announces his retirement, effective immediately.

March 2013 — Salt Lake County's district attorney announces the dismissal of first cases linked to WVCPD's drug squad.

April 2013 — Federal prosecutors dismiss additional cases.

April 2013 — City announces an internal audit of the narcotics unit turned up problems, including the mishandling of evidence and the possibility of missing drugs and money.

April 2013 — WVCPD announces it has placed seven more narcotics unit officers on paid leave; the district attorney's office says it would have concerns about accepting cases from some officers.

July 2013 — Charges are screened against a WVCPD officer for allegedly stealing pills from a dead man.