WEST VALLEY CITY — Melissa Kennedy and a few dozen others rallied against police violence and corruption Saturday as they marked the one-year anniversary of her daughter's shooting death.
Danielle Willard, 21, was shot and killed by West Valley police narcotics detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon during a botched undercover operation. The shooting, which was later ruled to be legally unjustified, led to allegations of corruption within the department, the dismissal of 124 criminal charges because of credibility issues and at least nine officers placed on leave amid several investigations.
Kennedy led Saturday's rally of about 40 people near the West Valley police station. Participants included family members of others killed by Utah police officers. Many wore red to symbolize the blood of the victims and held signs that read “Justice for Danielle,” “It’s murder, stop it” and “It’s all unjustified.”
Cowley was fired in September for an "egregious" pattern of behavior, but officials said he was not fired because of the Willard shooting. Kennedy and her supporters called for Cowley and Salmon to be criminally charged in Willard’s death and for the dismissal of other officers who worked in the same narcotics unit.
“I’m incredibly mad that this has taken this long to get this taken care of," Kennedy said in calling for more officers to be held accountable for violations. "We want justice and we’re not going to settle for anything else.”
In August, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill determined the Willard shooting was not legally justified because the officers’ lives weren’t in danger. He hasn’t yet decided whether to file criminal charges against the officers.
“Thank God that Sim Gill ruled Danielle Willard’s shooting unjustified. The change has begun,” Scott Simons, of Peoa, shouted at traffic through a megaphone.
His daughter, Kelly Fay Simons, was killed on Jan. 9, 2013. She, like Willard, was also unarmed and in her car. Simons said he has become friends with fellow parents who have had their lives “changed and ruined by the callousness of police officers.”
“I feel really bad for all these people,” Simons said. “All we care about is getting some restraints on the officers. Today’s the 2nd of November. Danielle Willard was killed a year ago today. They’re still waiting for justice, so that’s why we’re here.”
Simons, a suspect in a number of armed robberies, was shot in January while fleeing police in Murray. Gill determined that the shooting was legally justified.
“We’re here to call more attention to the epidemic of police violence and put pressure on people in power to start beginning some level of accountability for police violence,” said Jesse Fruhwirth, who lives close to where Willard was killed.
Fruhwirth is deeply involved in the movement to end police violence and has been part of bringing impacted families together.
“We’re hoping to warn people who aren’t already aware that cops are more dangerous than ever, bring people to our side and join this movement and also put pressure on some powerful people to make some changes right now,” Fruhwirth said.
Following the Willard shooting, other investigations were launched when West Valley police found evidence from another drug investigation in Cowley's trunk that shouldn’t have been there. Cowley, Salmon and seven other officers from the since-disbanded Neighborhood Narcotics Unit were placed on leave and investigated.
West Valley City officials later identified six problem areas involving the drug unit, including undisclosed amounts of missing drugs and money; officers taking "trophies, trinkets or souvenirs" from drug-related crime scenes; the use of GPS trackers without first securing a warrant; improper use of confidential informants, improper handling of evidence within the unit; as well as officers taking small amounts of cash and other items from seized vehicles.
Four of those nine officers returned to work in August. Three others returned in September following suspensions. Salmon remains on leave.
“We have a new chief that has come aboard that has brought all of these people back to work as police officers. I call them thieves with a badge and a gun,” Kennedy said.
West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo took up his position on Aug. 27.
“If he expects for his city to gain any kind of respect back for his department, he will not keep those people on board, and they will be charged one way or another with whatever they have done,” Kennedy said.
In an email, Russo said Saturday he couldn't comment on Kennedy's statements because he was unaware of the specifics but he did say that "this has been a tragic and traumatic situation for everyone — the officers involved, the entire police department, the community and most especially for the Willard family."
The resounding message from rally supporters was a cry for accountability.
“I’m just concerned. I don’t want it to happen to my children,” said West Valley resident Jessica Robinson. “I would be happier if I could see some accountability taken.”
Loretta Burnes, who was Matthew David Stewart’s neighbor in Ogden, held a sign that said: “Justice and peace stop the war on our streets.”
“All the violence with the cops, them killing everyone, it needs to stop,” Burnes said. “We’re here to open people’s eyes to what’s going on, to get things rolling, to put a stop to the brutality. Let’s get justice for these people.”
Stewart was charged with killing an Ogden police officer and shooting five other officers during a police raid at his home where he was growing marijuana. He later committed suicide in jail.
Burnes stood with fellow rally member Grant Coon of Salt Lake City. He said too many instances of police brutality have happened and tend to be swept under the rug.
“There needs to be some accountability,” Coon said. “When a police officer shoots a poor, young little 21-year-old girl and takes away her life, it’s just wrong. I hope we can make a bit of a difference.”