West Valley City picks former Kentucky chief to lead its cops
Police • Ex-Kentucky police chief to take over a department struggling to restore community trust.
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After a months-long search, West Valley City has picked a former Kentucky police chief with three decades of law-enforcement experience to lead its troubled police department.

The selection of Lee Russo, who led the Covington, Ky., Police Department from 2007 to 2012, is scheduled to be announced by West Valley officials at a Tuesday news conference.

City Manager Wayne Pyle made the pick, which must be presented to West Valley City Council members for their approval.

City administrators have not released the top candidate's name but several sources say the finalist is Russo.

Russo, 49, also has worked in the Baltimore County Police Department in Maryland and rose through the ranks to become a captain and precinct commander there.

He has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Delaware and a master's degree in business management and organizational development from Johns Hopkins University, according to his LinkedIn profile.

City officials had ranked communication skills and a track record of strong, ethical leadership as key qualities in a candidate for the top cop spot in West Valley, Utah's second-largest city. Their priority is to restore trust in the police.

"The selection process has been detailed and thorough, involving a carefully selected committee of West Valley City officials and members of associated outside entities including law enforcement, legal, media and other groups," Pyle said in a written release. "I am confident that we have chosen the best candidate to lead our police department into the future."

A West Valley City Council member who asked to not be named described Russo as "the right guy to lead the department going forward."

The job opened up with the March retirement of Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen, who cited medical reasons for his departure. The city received 36 applications for the job from around the nation, including several from Utah.

The West Valley City Police Department has been under fire for the alleged actions of its Neighborhood Narcotics Unit, including the fatal shooting in November of an unarmed woman by two detectives.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced Aug. 8 that the use of deadly force was not justified. His office is screening possible criminal charges against the officers, who deny any wrongdoing in the shooting of 21-year-old Danielle Willard.

The police department also has been criticized for the alleged mishandling of evidence that led to the dismissal of 125 drug cases and its handling of the case involving the 2009 disappearance of West Valley mother Susan Powell.

The controversies already have brought changes. City officials and Latino groups signed an agreement in July designed to restore the community's trust in police through "cultural competency" training of officers and other staffers.

The agreement came out of a discussion in May that was mediated by U.S. Department of Justice representatives and focused on concerns about racial profiling because of the large number of Latinos involved in the dismissed drug cases.

And the West Valley City Council approved changes in May to the board that reviews complaints against police.

The Professional Standards Review Board will begin issuing quarterly and annual reports on its operations; citizens are able to comment at the beginning of its monthly meetings; and all seven members are civilians.

The police department had been appointing one of the members; now, no city employee can serve on the board.

pmanson@sltrib.com

@PamelaMansonSLC —

By the numbers

The West Valley City Police Department has a staff of four deputy chiefs, 11 lieutenants, 18 sergeants, an additional 156 sworn officers and 45 civilian employees. It operates on an annual budget of $20 million.

Source: West Valley City