In 2.5 seconds, police shooting ruins lives
Marisol Bello, USA TODAY1:44 p.m. EDT March 22, 2015
Two-and-a-half seconds for West Valley City, Utah, police detective Shaun Cowley to assess what he perceived as a threat, pull his 9mm Glock pistol from his holster and fire two shots.
Two-and-a-half seconds for one of the bullets to pierce a driver’s side car window and enter the left side of Danielle Willard’s skull.
Two-and-a-half seconds to take Willard’s life.
Two-and-a-half seconds that changed Cowley’s life.
“The shooting cost me everything,” Cowley says. “You make a split-second decision about whether you go home that day and someone else does not. That’s a heavy burden.”
In the national conversation over police use of deadly force, prompted by fatal shootings of unarmed people, the impact on officers who have killed in the line of duty and the people connected to those who have died is haunting. For them, the issue goes beyond protests, social media outrage and hours of news coverage.
Former West Valley City police detective Shaun Cowley speaks with the news media after his case of manslaughter was dismissed in Salt Lake City on Oct. 9, 2014. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)
Cowley, born into a law enforcement family and a nine-year member of the West Valley City police force, says his instinctive reaction was to protect himself and his partner. He says he shot Willard because he thought she would run him over in her Subaru Forester. The decision led to criminal charges, uncertainty and financial ruin that left his name tarnished and his spirit weakened.
For the family of Danielle Willard, the fatal shooting left confusion, anger and profound sadness over the loss of the 21-year-old brunette with the sunny smile and jokey disposition.
“It’s been a tough few-plus years,” says Willard’s mother, Melissa Kennedy. “We are still so terribly hurt and confused.”
Police use of deadly force has been under a national microscope since officer Darren Wilson, who has since resigned, shot and killed unarmed black man Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and officer Daniel Pantaleo killed unarmed black man Eric Garner with a chokehold in Staten Island, N.Y. Grand juries declined to bring charges against the white officers.
There is no complete data on the number of people killed by police every year. FBI statistics show at least 400 deadly police shootings reported annually by local police departments. The number is based on what researchers, scholars and advocates consider to be flawed and largely incomplete data based on voluntary reporting.
Police killings highest in two decades
The recent high-profile deaths raised questions about improving training for police to de-escalate tense situations and to look at biases police may harbor against particular groups, especially black men.
In Cowley’s case, race is not an issue. He is white; so was Willard. Still, the case provides a glimpse into the chaotic moments and perceived threats that push an officer to use deadly force. It also shows the impact of such a quick decision, not just on those immediately involved but also on the wider community.
On Nov. 2, 2012, Cowley, 34, had been part of the narcotics unit at the West Valley City Police Department for two years. He was one of six detectives working on heroin and meth dealing in the Salt Lake City suburb of 135,000 people.
“We were very busy,” he says. “Drugs are so rampant. It’s just crazy.”
On this Friday, he was more than a week into surveillance of a duplex on the east side of the city where a white supremacist gang was suspected of selling heroin and guns.
The following description of that day is based on interviews with Cowley, a report by the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, which investigated the case, and a judge’s written order:
Cowley was in an unmarked car on one side of the house. His partner, Kevin Salmon, was in an unmarked car in the parking lot of an apartment complex across the street.
After 45 minutes of sitting and watching, Salmon radioed that a silver Subaru had pulled into the parking lot. Both detectives saw a man come out of the house, walk to the car and get in. Cowley says the man, one of the suspected dealers, was in the car for about 30 seconds, then went back inside the house.
The woman driving the car pulled out of her parking spot and parked closer to Salmon in the same lot. When she apparently noticed Salmon looking at her, she moved her car to another spot.
By this time, Cowley had parked closer to see what the woman was doing. He says he suspected the exchange was a drug sale and wanted to talk with the woman.
At this point, the stop would have been routine, he says. If the detectives found drugs on her, Cowley says, they wanted her to help them get evidence against the suspected dealers.
Cowley says he walked up to the car on the driver’s side while Salmon approached on the passenger side.
“She immediately looks up and I see her put something in her mouth,” he says. “We believed she was trying to ingest heroin.
“Now, she’s escalated this,” he says. So he pulled his gun from the holster and pointed it at the woman.
“Get out of the car,” Cowley yelled. She ignored him, he says. Her doors were locked, her windows were up and the car was running.
Both detectives told investigators that Willard moved her hand over the gear shift and looked as if she was preparing to back up and flee. Salmon told investigators he tried to break a window in the car but couldn’t.
Less than a minute had passed. Cowley decided to go to his car for a crowbar to break the window. He says the situation was taking longer than they had anticipated. They wanted to get a handle on it before anyone in the house noticed something amiss.
Cowley says he re-holstered his gun and was walking toward his car when he heard a screech of tires.
“I see her vehicle flying at me in reverse,” he says. He couldn’t see his partner and thought she had hit Salmon.
“I think he’s dead,” he says. “My brain is going, ‘You are going to die. She’s coming at you fast …’ All I see is the back windshield coming at me faster than anything I could imagine.”
He doesn’t remember making the decision to grab his gun. He doesn’t remember grabbing it. But he remembers firing it. He remembers the only sound he heard was the roar of the rounds going off and seeing one of the windows of the car shatter.
Then he passed out for what he thinks was a second, maybe two.
He came to on the ground on his stomach. A black mark stained one of his knees. His right knee throbbed in pain. He says he was hit by the car, but a later reconstruction of the incident found that was unlikely because of the direction the car was moving and where he was standing. He watched as the driver reversed the car in a tight arc and crashed into another car.
Willard would be pronounced dead at the scene.
West Valley City police officer Shawn Cowley is taken to an ambulance by paramedics after an officer-involved shooting on Nov. 2, 2012. (Photo: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)
After the shooting, the department put Cowley and Salmon on paid administrative leave.
Cowley remained in limbo as Salt Lake District Attorney Sim Gill investigated.
In August 2013, nine months after the shooting, Gill released a report saying the shooting was not justified.
In his report, Gill disputed Cowley’s and Salmon’s version of the incident. He said a reconstruction showed that neither Cowley nor Salmon was in the path of the car as Willard put it in reverse. The reconstruction showed her tires were turned in such a way as to show that her car was not a threat to either officer, he said.
He also disputed Cowley’s statement that Willard had swallowed a black substance the detective thought was drugs. An autopsy found no drugs in Willard’s system. A small bag of heroin was found in the pocket of the driver’s door.
It would take another 10 months before Gill charged Cowley with manslaughter. Gill did not return repeated calls or e-mails to discuss the case.
The aftermath of the shooting reverberated through this blue-collar Mormon community.
Police investigating the shooting found sealed evidence from a previous case in the trunk of Cowley’s car, evidence he had never logged or stored properly.
That discovery created a cascade of problems that roiled the West Valley City Police Department. It led to an internal audit of the narcotics unit that found mishandling of evidence and accusations of stolen drugs and missing money. No officers have been charged, but the findings raised questions of possible corruption and about the chain of custody for evidence. As a result, prosecutors tossed out at least 100 drug cases filed by the unit.
The narcotics unit was disbanded. Longtime Police Chief Buzz Nielsen resigned for what he said were health reasons.
The new chief, Lee Russo, says the shooting was a “flashpoint” for the police department because it forced the 206-member force to look at its policies and culture.
“It was the moment that brought the department to a grinding halt,” he says. The department released little information to the public about the shooting or the problems within the narcotics unit, which led to more distrust and accusations, he says.
Russo says he took over a department in August 2013 where the officers were demoralized and their every action came under scrutiny.
Since then, he has established regular audits of every division within the department to ensure that evidence is cataloged properly. He instituted monthly meetings with residents and community leaders, and bought body cameras for every officer to record encounters with the public.
He is creating a new narcotics unit that is training with the Salt Lake City office of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
“We are a completely different agency than we were,” he says.
Under Russo, the department fired Cowley for mishandling evidence. Russo says Cowley lost or misplaced evidence in at least four cases, including money that amounted to at least $2,000.
“You have a police officer who loses drugs and money,” Russo says. “Is that the kind of police officer you want in the community?”
Cowley and his attorneys deny the chief’s claim. They say he did nothing wrong and that he was a scapegoat for problems within the narcotics unit. His attorney Lindsay Jarvis says investigators removed the contents in Cowley’s car and locker during the investigation, and it was they who failed to properly log into evidence the items found during the search.
The two sides are in a tense battle over Cowley’s efforts to rejoin the force.
He says the uncertainty over his fate wore on him. He lost 30 pounds and became distant at home with his wife and two children. He never wanted to leave the house.
“It was so stressful and lonely,” he says. “I was on my own. You hear and read all the negative comments about you.”
The preliminary hearing into Cowley’s case in October 2014 lasted three days. At the end, Third District Judge L.A. Dever dismissed the case, saying the evidence did not show that Cowley acted recklessly when he shot Willard or that the shooting was not justified.
Former West Valley City police officer Shaun Cowley listens to the ruling by Judge L.A. Dever who announces Oct. 9, 2014, that he will not have to stand trial. Cowley was charged with second-degree felony manslaughter in connection with the Nov. 2, 2012, fatal shooting of 21-year-old Danielle Willard. At right are defense attorneys Paul Cassell and Lindsay Jarvis. (Photo: Francisco Kjolseth, The Deseret News)
Willard’s family, who had been hopeful that the man who killed their daughter would be tried and convicted, were in shock.
Her parents call her shooting an assassination.
Two years after her oldest child’s death, Willard’s mother, who lives in Washington state, is still trying to make sense of it.
Willard had gone to Utah to kick her heroin habit, Kennedy says. She had started using heroin with friends when she was 18, and she had been in and out of 30-day drug treatment programs near her home in Vancouver, Wash.
Her mother thought that if she was in a longer program away from her friends, she could finally be free of heroin. They found a 90-day treatment program near Salt Lake City.
Willard had completed it by the time of her death. Kennedy says she was working as a gas station cashier and was moving from her apartment to another. She was supposed to have been putting a rent deposit on the new apartment at the time she was killed.
“She was doing good,” Kennedy says. “She was really trying.”
The family filed a wrongful death suit against the city, which they settled in February for $1.4 million. The city did not admit wrongdoing, and under the condition of the settlement, Kennedy says she “can’t say anything bad about the police.”
She says now she can focus her attention on changing police policies to make officers more accountable when they use deadly force.
“They feel they have a right to go out and pull the trigger and not pay for what they’ve done,” she says. “I want them to have another reason other than ‘I was scared for my life.’ If you feel threatened, then seek safety. If you think a car is running at you, get out of the way. Why would you pull your gun out and shoot?”
Cowley says he had no choice, but the decision cost him his life as he knew it.
“I was unemployable,” he says. “My name was so much in the media here.”
After he was charged, the only job he could get was laying hardwood floors with a relative. He made so little money that he and his wife of 15 years could no longer afford the rent on their house.
She moved into the basement of her parents’ home with their two young children. He moved into the basement of his parents’ home.
The couple decided last summer to legally separate.
“It happened bit by bit,” he says. “We grew apart.”
Today, he works with another relative repairing medical equipment. He is appealing to get his job back. He is still in the basement of his parent’s house.
As Cowley tries now to repair a life left in shambles, he lives with the burden of everything two people lost in 2.5 seconds. A Washington man was gunned down by police after throwing rocks at them. His family questions why deadly force was necessary. VPC