It all began in early November 2013 . . .
when West Valley City, Utah police detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon were doing what they did often and well: conducting surveillance in a suspected drug-trafficking area and white supremacist stronghold.
The two officer, in plainclothes, approached a suspected drug buyer, 21-year-old Danielle Willard, outside of the Lexington Park Apartments in that town. They had just seen a small SUV driven by Willard arrive at the apartment lot and park next to their police vehicle. They saw a man approach her, get inside, and then depart, entering an apartment a short time later.
After looking suspiciously at the car parked next to her, Willard then moved her vehicle to a different parking spot within the complex. Believing they had witnessed a drug transaction, Detectives Cowley and Salmon approached her vehicle on foot to engage the suspected buyer.
Detective Cowley approached the driver’s side and Detective Salmon the passenger’s side of Willard’s parked SUV. Detective Cowley thought he saw the driver put something in her mouth. He knocked on her window, identified himself as a police officer, and demanded she open her door and spit out the substance.
Both detectives attempted to open the locked doors of her car, and Detective Salmon also pulled out his firearm but kept it pointed at the ground, as a show of force. Both officers had their police badges on neck chains during the early afternoon encounter.
When Willard refused to open her door, Detective Cowley began to return to his vehicle to get a tool to break her window. As he walked away he heard the screech of tires, turned, and saw Willard reversing the SUV directly toward him. Unable to see his partner, Detective Cowley feared the worst and thought Detective Salmon may have been run over.
Detective Salmon also believed Willard’s fleeing vehicle struck or was about to run over Officer Cowley. The two officers fired their weapons simultaneously—Detective Cowley fired twice at the driver just as he was struck by the SUV and falling to the ground, and Detective Salmon fired four times. Willard was fatally struck by one of Detective Cowley’s two shots and died at the scene.
Her death and her drug addictions leading up to it were a tragedy that will not in any way be healed by criminal charges against Detective Cowley.
The shooting was the first time Detective Cowley fired his weapon at a threat while serving in the West Valley City Police Department.
Detective Cowley had perhaps less than two seconds to make a fateful decision that day. But the Salt Lake district attorney took a little more to decide whether to charge the young officer. In fact, he took a year and a half to look at the evidence, hire outside laboratories, evaluate, re-examine, and second-guess. Eighteen months after the incident, the DA indicted Shaun Cowley for Second-Degree Manslaughter, punishable by up to 15 years in jail.
LELDF supports Detective Cowley and the actions he (and Detective Salmon) took that day. No law enforcement officer should be second-guessed when making a life and death decision in milliseconds or wait to be run over by a fleeing vehicle before using deadly force.
Every police officer is trained in the use of such force, a last resort in defending others or himself from the threat of imminent, serious bodily harm or death. Often the decision to use deadly force against a deadly threat is simply instinctive—the powerful reaction instinct for one’s own survival.
Detective Cowley, his two young children, and his extended family are heading into a very challenging time in their lives. Finding and keeping work will be an ever-present worry, as will his ability to receive a fair trial. LELDF will stand behind Shaun and his distinguished defense team in the difficult months ahead.
UPDATE — November 2014: Fall brought relief for Shaun, his family, and his legal team. Despite a local judge dismissing the manslaughter indictment for lack of evidence, the District Attorney’s office that initially brought the misguided charges sought an appeal. Fortunately, the Utah Attorney General’s office, which had to approve the appeal, declined to do so and Shaun Cowley will be free to pick up the pieces of his life and move on. We congratulate Shaun’s counsel on their efforts to secure this victory.