West Valley Detective Shaun Cowley Fired after Shooting Death Ruled Unjustified

Salt Lake City criminal lawyer

In a move that’s a possible harbinger of things to come, West Valley City has fired one of the two detectives allegedly involved in the shooting death of Danielle Willard. The termination of Detective Shaun Cowley comes after an internal review board found the shooting of 21-year-old Willard to be “unjustified” after a 10-month process. Cowley’s attorney, Lindsay Jarvis, is reportedly waging a campaign to fight the termination and peel back the layers of inexperience and ineptitude on the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit — Cowley’s old outfit now disbanded. She may very well be right that the department gave its officers little to no training or supervision. Unfortunately, as a general matter, many fatal conflicts between citizens and law enforcement are the result of poor training. A single officer can be held responsible for what is actually a failure of the system. She may be correct in portraying her client as a “fall guy” for the entire unit. But a young woman is still dead, and that is simply tragic.

A Drug Arrest Gone Terribly Wrong?

As I wrote about in an earlier post, Willard was allegedly gunned down by two undercover officers, Cowley and Kevin Salmon, after she allegedly attempted to use drugs while sitting in her car. The two detectives claim that Willard threw her Dodge Nitro in reverse on seeing them, and struck Cowley with her vehicle. That’s when, according to the officers, they fired on Willard, striking her twice and killing her.

The review board found no evidence that Cowley was hit by Willard’s car. Furthermore, investigators reportedly discovered evidence from a separate drug bust in the trunk of Cowley’s own vehicle. In the end, the incident is one of many questionable instances. There have been 124 separate cases at the state and federal levels dismissed due to credibility issues involving West Valley’s Neighborhood Narcotics Unit. Authorities placed seven officers from that unit on administrative leave — not counting the Cowley termination.

To recap: that’s 124 possibly wrongful arrests and charges thrown out of court, one innocent young woman dead in the prime of her life, possible evidence tampering, an enraged community, numerous officers’ careers in jeopardy, and one detective fired — who ultimately may face criminal charges. That record is an embarrassment and the shame cannot be laid at the feet of just one officer. There is clearly a systemic problem that needs to be thoroughly addressed.

Damage to the Public Trust and Community Safety

Police behaving well outside the confines of their sworn duties damages the public’s belief that they can do their jobs honorably and effectively. Disbanding the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit might make for a nice headline, but it does little to address the underlying issues here. The other officers in that unit have taken their questionable strategies and poor police work to other departments and divisions. Innocent people may still suffer because of the tactics employed by that unit, and quite frankly, now that the officers are disbursed to other areas, the incidents may be harder to quantify.

The point I am trying to make here is not an indictment of the individual officers but rather that the system may very well be failing those officers by not directly addressing the problem by ensuring proper training and procedure enforcement. Rather than totally disband the Neighborhood Narcotics Unit a better step for the officers and the community would have been for West Valley City to suspend the Unit’s activities while training the officers and putting more effective procedures in place. The reality is that there is a need in the community for West Valley’s Neighborhood Narcotics Unit but such a unit can only be effective if it is operated according to accepted law enforcement standards and that includes proper training resources be made available to the officers. It is simply unfair to the officers, the community and individuals who come into contact with the officers to either permit the officers to continue working without additional training and procedures in place, or on the other hand to simply disband the unit and pretend that the officers are not doing essentially the same work as they were under the unit. Does anyone believe that West Valley has stopped enforcement of the narcotics laws? Hardly.

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