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Cop Claims City Scapegoated Him for Problems

SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - A former undercover officer claims a Salt Lake City suburb scapegoated him for reports of widespread evidence blunders and public outcry over the shooting death of a young woman.

Shaun Cowley sued West Valley City and its Police Department, the city manager, Salt Lake County and its district attorney, and seven high-ranking police officers and former officers, on Tuesday in Federal Court.

Twenty-one-year-old Danielle Willard was shot to death by the West Valley undercover drug force on Nov. 2, 2012. Her parents blamed Cowley and his partner, Officer Salmon.

Willard's parents sued the officers, the city and police supervisors in June 2103, claiming their daughter had been shot "assassination style" as she sat in her car, amid "widespread and systemic corruption" in the undercover drug force.

They called the killing "untimely and unwarranted," and claimed that Cowley and Salmon had "engaged in a pattern and practice of illegal conduct."

Their complaint said: "West Valley City admits to rampant corruption and systemic constitutional violations by its officers, including mishandling of evidence, confiscation of drugs for personal benefit, theft of seized property, illegal use of GPS tracking systems, improper use of confidential drug informants, and commission of perjury.

"Since the shooting death of Danielle Willard, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has sought the dismissal of 115 criminal cases and the United States Attorney's Office has dismissed eleven criminal cases as a result of the illegal conduct of the defendant officers and others within the department."

In his new complaint, Cowley seeks punitive damages for malicious prosecution, constitutional violations, abuse of process, state law violations, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Here's what happened the way Cowley tells it in his lawsuit.

He was transferred to West Valley City's neighborhood narcotics unit in 2011.

Cowley claims that neither he nor any other undercover officer received "any formal training" upon recruitment, including instruction on drug enforcement procedures or evidence handling.

In January 2012, Cowley says, he assisted his supervisor, defendant Lt. John Coyle, in a "knock and talk" investigation. Coyle called him and said he had seen "drug paraphernalia and a large amount of U.S. currency in plain sight after knocking on a suspect's door," according to the complaint.

Coyle asked him to help in the search while a third officer secured a warrant, Cowley says, and when he arrived at the suspect's home, Coyle already was searching it and had found the cash "inside the closed drawers of a tool chest."

"Cowley confronted Coyle regarding Coyle's illegal search in front of WVC Detectives Salmon and Smith. Coyle ordered Cowley to be quiet or face punishment for insubordination," according to the complaint. "Cowley shortly thereafter asked to be transferred from the NNU [neighborhood narcotics unit] but was denied a transfer."

Salmon and Smith are not named as defendants in Cowley's case.

A July 2012 audit of the police department and the drug unit revealed "questionable evidence-handling practices," Cowley says, but "West Valley ignored the audits."

In October that year Cowley was named employee of the month for his work on a white supremacist case, he says, but he was falling behind on his "procedural work" because of the overwhelming increase in drug investigations."


The complaint continues: "During drug stops and investigations, Cowley was responsible for protecting the confidential informant, filling out paperwork, booking evidence, and returning to the investigation.

"Due to the demanding nature of his work, Cowley failed to properly book evidence from some of the drug investigations. The trunk of Cowley's vehicle contained a safe for temporarily storing evidence. Cowley would leave evidence in the trunk safe when he was short on time travelling between drug raids."

Cowley says he asked a second time to be transferred back to regular patrol duty, because he "was unable to properly conduct police business as a result of the hectic pace of the drug raids as well as the questionable activity of his supervisors."

He says he was denied again, and "told he would have a target on his back if he ever left the NNU."

In November 2012, Cowley and nonparty Officer Salmon shot and killed 21-year-old Danielle Willard during a drug investigation. Cowley says Willard tried to run them over with her car.

After the shooting, a search of Cowley's car turned up evidence that had not yet been booked, including a purse, a baggie of meth, $2 bill and a chunk of methamphetamine, Cowley says. "All of the evidence was later accounted for but had not been booked into evidence," he adds.

West Valley City Police investigated the narcotics unit and placed Cowley on administrative leave. He says that the department did not tell him "for months" that his bullet had killed Willard, and he did not received counseling, believing the fatal shot was fired by Salmon.

On the day the department released its records on the Willard shooting, which tied Cowley to her death, defendant District Attorney Sim Gill said at a news conference that 19 criminal cases had been dismissed due to the actions of "one detective" at the narcotics unit.

Cowley claims that Gill's announcement was "purposefully held" on the same day his records were released, "in order to link Cowley with the dismissal of the cases."

Cowley says he was involved in only two of the dismissed cases.

West Valley City "pursued administrative and criminal claims against Cowley to scapegoat Cowley for the police department's misconduct," he says.

Cowley says he received a letter of recommended termination in March 2013, based on alleged misconduct while acting as an officer, including four counts of mishandling evidence, two counts of dereliction of duty and four counts of conduct unbecoming an officer.

He was fired in September 2013, and says neither he nor his attorney was told of the decision until after the media were informed.

Salmon was not fired, Cowley says. He claims that other officers who mishandled evidence similar to the way he did received lesser discipline, such as letters of counseling and reprimand, and 40-hour suspensions.

Cowley appealed his termination to a civilian review board and returned to work in June 2015, after criminal charges against him were dismissed for failure to show probable cause.

When he returned, he says, police managers sent an email to officers, "acknowledging that Cowley had returned to work but that the Cowley issue was far from over."

Faced with "a hostile work environment," he quit three days after being reinstated.

West Valley City said it was "disappointed" by Cowley's lawsuit.

"We are disappointed that Shaun Cowley, who voluntarily resigned from West Valley City, has decided to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city," the city said through a spokesman Wednesday. "We have yet to be served, but we intend to vigorously defend any suit brought against the city by Mr. Cowley."

West Valley City, pop. 132,000, is a suburb of Salt Lake City. Its per capita income of $17,599 in 2013 was only 57 percent the per capita income of Salt Lake City's $31,005 that year, according to West Valley City is 52 percent nonwhite, compared to Salt Lake City's 35 percent.

Cowley is represented by Tyler Ayres, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

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