SALT LAKE CITY — West Valley City, Utah, has agreed to pay $120,000 to settle with a police officer fired after a fatal shooting during a drug investigation. But the settlement seems to have done little to alleviate the bad blood between the two sides.
While the city maintains that its case for firing Shaun Cowley in 2013 over mishandled drugs and money was tanked by a technicality, lawyers for the former detective say the troubled department wrongly made him into a scapegoat.
"The problem runs deep," said Cowley's attorney, Lindsay Jarvis. "At the end of the day, this is not a technicality. This was a willful withholding of evidence."
West Valley City manager Wayne Pyle, however, said that the department was right to fire Cowley.
"Drugs and money were missing. They are still missing," he said. "Mr. Cowley is not in any sense of the word vindicated or a scapegoat."
Cowley said Monday that he is weighing a possible civil suit against the city. He was briefly reinstated after the city conceded his claim last week. But Cowley said Monday that he plans to resign and will make his departure official when he receives a check for $88,000 in back pay. The city will also contribute about $33,000 to his state retirement fund.
Pyle said the case against him was solid, but it was damaged when a judge ruled against the city over the filing of evidence policy and training documents. The city conceded the case last week, and the two sides settled over the weekend. Pyle says the city will fight back if Cowley files a civil suit in the case.
Jarvis said the missing evidence at the center of the firing was taken from a locker in Cowley's office and destroyed to pin the department's problems on Cowley after a high-profile shooting. The police chief calls that claim outrageous.
Cowley said Monday that he has received death threats since the shooting. "I am afraid for my family," he said. "I just want to lay low and go on with my life."
Cowley wasn't fired for the shooting, but over his actions in a drug unit that investigators say lost evidence and kept souvenirs from busts, authorities said. More than 100 cases were dismissed in the wake of the investigation into the unit. Eight other officers were placed on leave or disciplined, but only Cowley was fired.
The investigation started after he shot and killed an unarmed woman, Danielle Willard, 21, as she backed her car out of a parking spot during a 2012 drug investigation. He said his life was in danger from her car, but prosecutors found he wasn't in its path and the shooting wasn't legally justified.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill filed a manslaughter charge against Cowley, rare in a police shooting, but a judge later ruled the evidence didn't justify the charge and tossed it out.
West Valley City also agreed in February to pay $1.4 million to settle a lawsuit filed by Willard's family. Police Chief Lee Russo said Monday the department has cleaned up the drug unit and is moving on.
"The police department has been transformed," he said. "We have really turned around."