Russo retires having left his mark on West Valley CityOct 06, 2017 12:30PM ● By Travis Barton
Former West Valley City Police Chief Lee Russo (center) holds the CALEA accreditation certificate after the police department was awarded the distinction in May. (Kevin Conde/West Valley City)
Four years ago, Lee Russo took over the West Valley City Police Department as the smoke was clearing on scandal and controversy surrounding the department. He now leaves the department in a blaze of glory.
Russo retired as West Valley City’s Chief of Police on Sept. 8 leaving behind a legacy of noteworthy accomplishments to hang his hat on.
“Working with the officers of the West Valley City Police Department, the leadership of West Valley City and especially working alongside the residents of this city have been some of the proudest moments of my career,” Russo said in a statement.
Though Russo retires in the fourth year of a five-year contract, he and city leaders said it was always understood WVC would not be his permanent home. With three children across the country who Russo and his wife wanted to be closer to, he said the time was right to move on.
“Now that our city leaders and I have accomplished our goals for this police department, I feel confident that the time is right to go out and find that new opportunity,” he said.
One of those accomplished goals was to earn the community’s trust again after the Danielle Willard shooting and subsequent corruption uncovered in the narcotics unit.
“Four years later,” the city wrote in a statement, “the police department has succeeded in connecting with the public, and is a state of the art department once again standing proudly amongst its sister jurisdictions.”
Deputy Chief Colleen Nolen will serve as interim chief as the city begins its search for a permanent police chief.
Under Russo’s stewardship, the police department became the only nationally accredited police agency in the state through CALEA (Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies), a distinction held by less than five percent of police agencies nationwide widely considered the gold standard in law enforcement.
Russo said their operations are now aligned with the “best practices governing all facets of law enforcement. These best practices are considered the ‘gold standard’ of the profession.”
When WVCPD was awarded its accreditation in May, Mark Mosier, regional program director for CALEA, said not every “organization’s CEO” is willing to set aside their ego subjecting itself to such a comprehensive review.
“It takes a strong leader to sign up for this program,” Mosier said.
After receiving the accreditation, Russo said the community expects its police department to be the best and this program helps them achieve that level.
“Staying with this program is our way of committing back to the community that we will not allow ourselves to become obsolete. We will not rest on our successes of the past,” Russo said.
Russo worked 22 years with the Baltimore County Police Department, an originator in developing CALEA and community policing. He said implementing those practices in WVC was a personal feather in the cap, but that the hope and goal is that 10 years from now, everyone in the department will consider CALEA standards common sense.
“Then you know you’ve made a real culture change,” Russo said in May.
One CALEA assessor reported about WVCPD that that “there’s clearly a flavor, a theme [that] things have changed over the last three years, and it’s being favorably received and reported.”
In May, Councilman Steve Buhler said during a city council meeting that public opinion of the police department has improved.
“I don’t think it’s because we get awards and recognition, but I think the awards and recognition follow actual improvement, progress and accomplishment,” Buhler said.
Start by Believing
In his statement, Russo highlighted their “victim-focused protocols” through the Start by Believing program and processing all rape kits. He said these protocols have “made it more likely that someone who commits sexual assault will be prosecuted for their crime.”
“We set the example in our community by saying that when someone comes to us and tells us that they have been sexually assaulted, we will start by believing,” Russo said.
In 2015, WVCPD initiated a special victims unit along with the Start by Believing campaign. They also set up the Trauma Informed Victim Interview (TIVI) where sexual assault investigators are specially trained to help victims recall their experiences.
The department now has a collaboration with victim services that includes police conducting interviews in a trauma room that resembles a living room setting.
All of which has aimed to create a better understanding and relationship between police and the community.
In the city’s statement it said, “Our officers are well trained, work hard to protect and to serve, and consistently strive to be a real part of our West Valley City community.”
During Russo’s time as police chief, the department was one of the first to equip its officers with body cameras.
Russo said in his statement that they’ve “created an environment of transparency in the police department” and that “the partnership we have with our community is stronger than ever before.”
Russo would also hold monthly community meetings that were streamed live on Facebook. The professional standards review board—a committee of residents who review all displays of force, firearm discharges, police pursuits and citizen complaints—looks at around 50-70 cases each month. They make notes, determine whether actions were within policy and if necessary, make disciplinary recommendations.
Russo said in March that he reads every note the board writes.
“It brings transparency, oversight and accountability for the public so there’s a level of confidence that we are not operating in secrecy,” Russo said at the time. “It helps, I think, the public understand how we operate and why we operate the way we do.”
At a time when the Salt Lake City Police Department is undergoing scrutiny for its interactions with the public, Russo leaves WVC having endeavored to regain the city’s trust.
“Finally, to the community,” Russo wrote in the final paragraph of his statement. “I can’t thank you enough for the support you have shown me and this department over the past four years. This Police Department is stronger now than ever, our relationship with you is stronger now than ever; we are truly working as partners to make this city the very best it can be. I want you to know that this City’s elected officials and administration are committed to you. Residents of West Valley City, you are in great hands.”