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West Valley City police watchdog doesn't bark

Published March 24, 2013 5:30 pm

West Valley City • Police standards review board does not publish reports like monitors in other cities.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Since long before the shooting of Danielle Willard or the revelation there may be problems with a narcotics detective, six West Valley City residents have met to discuss the police force there.

The six volunteers constitute the West Valley City Professional Standards Review Board, a civilian body monitoring the city's 190 or so police officers. But like details in the Willard shooting or why prosecutors suddenly dropped 19 prosecutions involving the detective, results of the work done by the review board are elusive.

The review board does not publish its work nor have autonomy like other police monitors across the United States. Board Chairman Dean Trump on Thursday refused to provide statistics from the board's work or answer questions about the board.

"I've never heard that before," said Philip Eure, past president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, saying sharing statistics represents a "core function" of such review boards.

The Salt Lake Tribune submitted a records request to West Valley City on Friday, and Assistant Police Chief Mike Powell supplied statistics for 2012. Powell said he would try to find statistics for previous years. Powell did not know the definitions for some of the terms in the data.

Board members may need the support of the West Valley City police chief and city leaders to gain their appointment. And when board members meet to review cases, one longtime board member said, a West Valley City police sergeant has some discretion in which cases the members review.

Yet current and former board members say the board and the West Valley City Police Department work well together.

"Most of the officers know we review all of their activities so they watch [their behavior] pretty close," said Ken Allen, who has served on the board for 20 years.

Bobie Tupou, who served on the board for a few months in 2004, said members participate in a "fair process" in which they consider citizen complaints from the viewpoints of both the complainant and the officer.

"Most [complaints] were pretty straightforward," she said. "Somebody complained that officers put handcuffs on them, but there was suspicion the person had a weapon. So you're thinking, 'Of course the officer is going to cuff them if they're worried about the person coming after them.' "

It's unclear who serves on the review board. Some members' names, including that of Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch, were found in West Valley City Council meeting minutes, but a roster of board members was not found on any city website. Williams did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The website for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement lists about 100 review boards across the country. The idea is to give residents a role in monitoring the police by hearing citizen complaints, identifying wrongdoing and making policy recommendations. West Valley City and Salt Lake City appear to be the only municipalities in Utah with recognized civilian review boards. A group of Iron County citizens has started its own review board, but it has no codified authority from any local governments to actually probe police complaints.

The boards can take various forms. The Salt Lake City Civilian Review Board announces its meetings, has a full-time investigator who works for the board and issues his own report about citizen complaints and the need for changes to police department training or policy. That board also publishes a quarterly report saying how many citizen complaints it reviewed, the nature of those complaints and how many times it ruled in the complainant's favor.

The board recently issued a report detailing mistakes leading to Salt Lake City police raiding the wrong home when serving a search warrant seeking drugs. In 2012, the Salt Lake City Civilian Review Board found problems with the city's vice squad, including questionable searches and detectives touching suspected prostitutes.

Review boards in some cities do not have their own investigator and, instead, the board members will audit complaints investigated by the police department or weigh a written complaint against police reports or an officer's explanation of what occurred. That appears to be the model of the West Valley City Professional Standards Review Board.

Allen said the board meets on the second Thursday of every month. The board will read written complaints. Occasionally a citizen will appear in person, but Allen said that has happened "not more than 10" times in his two decades on the board. Meeting notices and agendas are not published like they are for other city bodies.

The board will compare the complaint with the officer's version of events. If the complaint is sustained, the case is forwarded to the police chief for his consideration. The board does not impose discipline.

If the board rules against the complainant, the matter is closed, Allen said.

Allen, 82, declined to discuss the Willard case because it is still under investigation. But Allen said that in his time on the board, it has never found that a West Valley City police officer made a mistake in shooting somebody.

"You've got to give the officer the benefit of the doubt," Allen said. "We're not there. He's the one who's there. He calls the shots — he and the sergeant."

The board's website says it reviews "all citizen complaints, all 'use of force' occurrences, and all vehicle pursuits." But Allen said he and the other five members aren't actually reviewing "all" such cases.

That proved too onerous, Allen said. The board was reviewing what he said was 60 or 70 complaints and police actions per meeting. So, some years ago, board members asked the internal affairs sergeant who attended their meetings to stop bringing the board lesser cases, including some use-of-force cases.

"I'm sure there's some of a minor detail," Allen said of some use of force cases.

Allen was unable to specify what constitutes a lesser complaint or use of force. Neither the city's website nor ordinances appear to have guidelines.

Eure, who remains the executive director of the Washington, D.C., Office of Police Complaints, said almost no review boards discipline police officers. As for not reviewing all complaints and issues, boards should have policies on what they will examine, Eure said.

For complaints that don't meet that threshold, it's good practice to aggregate them or provide a written synopsis to the board so they have the option of investigating and can identify trends, Eure said.

"But that's Option B," Eure said. "Option A is to review everything."

Allen said he joined the board after receiving a nomination from West Valley City's then mayor. Tupou said Trump told her about an opening and encouraged her to apply.

After submitting a resume, Tupou was invited to a meeting with then-West Valley City Police Chief Thayle "Buzz" Nielsen.

"He just kind of wanted to get to know me," Tupou said, adding that Nielsen never asked her opinion of the police.

It's not clear what role Nielsen had in installing board members. Nielsen announced his retirement this month for what City Manager Wayne Pyle said were health reasons. No one answered phone calls to Nielsen's home last week.

After applying or being nominated, board applicants are confirmed by a vote of the West Valley City Council.

Tupou, 44, said she started on the board with high regard for the police. Her time on the board affirmed that.

"I've lived in West Valley my whole life, and I know a lot of people have a low opinion of West Valley police," Tupou said, "but I've seen some crazy things here, and I'm glad we have someone putting their lives on the line for us every day."

ncarlisle@sltrib.comTwitter: @natecarlisle —

What the West Valley City Professional Standards Review Board reviewed

According to statistics supplied by the city for 2012, the board received 83 minor inquiries, which can be allegations of rudeness or other problems that don't amount to a major investigation.

The board reviewed 26 major investigations, which can be violations of department policy or allegations of criminal wrongdoing by a police officer. In all, nine cases resulted in discipline, ranging from a verbal reprimand to a suspension.

The board also conducted the following reviews:

• Two cases of baton use

• Five uses of chemical spray

• 177 cases of physical restraint or combat with a suspect

• 428 cases of a firearm being displayed and seven cases of a firearm being used

• 25 cases of someone being threatened with a K-9 and seven K-9 bites

• 15 cases of Tasers being displayed and 28 cases of them being used

• 9 cases of a noise or flash device being used

• 75 cases of forced entry

Source: West Valley City