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In a small Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Salt Lake City, Melissa Kennedy thanked the makeshift family that supported her all these years.
It's been a long road for Kennedy, whose daughter Danielle Willard was shot and killed by West Valley City police detective Shaun Cowley on Nov. 2, 2012. On Thursday, the city settled a wrongful death lawsuit and awarded $1.425 million to Willard's estate, which includes her parents. City officials said the settlement was not an admission of wrongdoing.
"I am so glad that this is over. [It's] a huge relief, a great big block has been taken off my shoulders," she said Saturday afternoon outside the Atlantic Cafe, speaking publicly for the first time since the settlement. Kennedy, who lives in Washington, flew into Salt Lake City earlier in the week. "I'm glad that we can move forward."
Behind her, dozens of people who supported Kennedy since Willard's death filled the restaurant, sharing both hugs and heavy conversation. Some of them were relatives of other Utahns who have died in police shootings.
"There's been so many people who are in the same situation," Kennedy said. "And I know from personal experience that you need the strength of other people that know what you're going through."
Seeing Kennedy find resolution gives Gina Thayne hope and strength to move forward. Her nephew, Dillon Taylor, was shot and killed by a Salt Lake City police officer in August. This network of other people in similar situations is "actually the best support there is," Thayne said, "because in incidents like this, there is no help out there for families of these victims. So we give each other support and strength to get through it."
Marlee Kanosh, whose brother Corey Kanosh was shot and killed two weeks before Willard, has a lot of mixed emotions for Kennedy. "A lot of personal anger still towards West Valley City, but also I'm very happy for Melissa, and I hope this brings closure for her," Kanosh said. "And that's what brings me here: To be supportive. … We've really come together as a family."
And family is where the settlement money is going. Kennedy said the money means that her son and other daughter can now go to college. She also hopes the money might be able to help others, "or so that we could go a step farther and maybe work on legislation. Something along those lines."
She doesn't know yet what form any legislation would take, but she's talking with Michael Bell a Wisconsin man whose son was shot and killed by police 10 years ago about the possibilities. Bell has successfully pushed for reform in how Wisconsin reviews police shootings.
He flew to Salt Lake City to attend Kennedy's get-together.
"I met with Frank Serpico in New York [in the last week of November], and Frank will call out here and endorse this for you," Bell told Kennedy outside the restaurant. "Frank will call out and talk to the legislators involved."
Serpico is a former New York City police detective portrayed by actor Al Pacino in the 1973 film "Serpico" about police corruption.
But for now, Kennedy is glad to have the last two years behind her. She harbors no hard feelings toward law enforcement, even after the roller coaster of the last two years that sometimes drove her "out of [her] mind." In fact, some of her relatives are in law enforcement.
"What [officers] have to live day to day, knowing that whenever they go out on a call, that they have no idea what they're going into … it's scary for them, it's very stressful for them," Kennedy said.
She would like to see more training for officers, and better awareness on the public's part about what officers go through.
"I really hope that by me helping out with the judicial system, with the legislation, maybe something can come out of it good on both sides."
The West Valley City Police Department's routine investigation of Willard's shooting led to the discovery that the narcotics unit had a number of problems, including mishandling of evidence and booking evidence without proper documentation. The city disbanded the unit, and the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office and federal prosecutors dismissed more than 100 drug cases associated with it.
West Valley City reconstituted a narcotics and vice unit last month. Police Chief Lee Russo promised it will be better trained and monitored this time.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill found that Cowley's life was not in danger in his encounter with Willard, and filed a second-degree felony manslaughter charge against the officer. A 3rd District Court judge dismissed the charge last year after a preliminary hearing.
Kennedy and Willard's father, Frederick Willard, had already filed their lawsuit by then.
"We went over this so many times, and decided: You know what, I will never put a [dollar] number on my daughter," Kennedy said. "I can't do that. Nobody can make me do that. My attorneys were good enough to be there for me. … Their job is to make sure we get some kind of ending to this. Some sort of being able to move on. And that's what this has done for me."
At her Washington home, Kennedy opens the drapes and greets her daughter at the start of each new day.