There’s nothing usual about this case. This is a complex case. It has issues that are there that we want to be able to bring the insight and experience and fresh perspective now that the analysis has moved from use of force to now a potential screening for a criminal filing. – District Attorney Sim Gill
WEST VALLEY CITY — The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office has assembled a panel of homicide detectives to review the fatal officer-involved shooting of Danielle Willard for possible criminal charges.
Willard was killed a little more than a year ago by West Valley police detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon during a botched undercover drug operation. In August, District Attorney Sim Gill determined that the shooting of the 21-year-old woman was not legally justified.
Cowley, who became the main focus of the investigation, was later fired from the department for what was determined to be an "egregious" pattern of behavior unrelated to the shooting. He is appealing his firing.
Gill must now decide whether the shooting rose to the level of a criminal offense.
To help him make a decision, he assembled an "investigation team" made up of two homicide detectives each from the West Valley City, Salt Lake City and Unified police departments.
"They'll assist with the investigation and put together the screening packet like they would any other criminal case they would work on," Gill said.
The screening process will be treated like any other homicide investigation, he said. The panel will bring their expertise and insight about such cases to the table, work with the district attorney's office in talking through the strengths and weaknesses of the case, and then present it to prosecutors for consideration of possible charges.
But ultimately, Gill said his office — not the police investigation panel — will be responsible for deciding whether to file criminal charges.
While this isn't the first time Gill has had to decide whether criminal charges are warranted in an unjustified police shooting, it is out of the ordinary to assemble a team of homicide detectives to help. But Gill also noted that the Willard case "is the most complex one that we've looked at."
"There's nothing usual about this case. This is a complex case. It has issues that are there that we want to be able to bring the insight and experience and fresh perspective now that the analysis has moved from use of force to now a potential screening for a criminal filing," he said.
Gill does not believe having West Valley detectives on the panel is a conflict of interest, noting that they are the same two investigators who previously assisted determining whether the shooting was justified.
"The goal here isn't to go out and re-investigate from the beginning everything that's already been done. The two investigators did a very thorough job. They know the facts of the case, and they're interacting with the other investigators in the case as well," Gill said.
Brett Rawson, general counsel for the Fraternal Order of Police, said anybody involved in the evaluation should be trained and certified in the science behind use of force incidents. He knows the two West Valley officers on the panel have been certified. But Rawson believes Gill and his attorneys should also be required to take the certification course.
"Because really, it's not fair to view a critical incident involving police officers without understanding the science behind it," he said.
Rawson said the FOP continues to disagree with the district attorney's office over its finding that Cowley's use of deadly force was not justified.
"There is no way it is criminal in nature and that's the proper conclusion to come to in this case," he said Friday.
Gill said his goal is to have a decision about criminal charges by the end of the year.
Contributing: Andrew Adams