West Valley City Paid $650K to Settle Two Lawsuits Involving Disbanded, Discredited Neighborhood Narcotics Unit

Former West Valley City Police Lt. John Coyle, left, talks with his attorney Erik Strindberg at the West Valley City Civil Service Commission during his hearing at the West Valley City offices in West Valley City, Utah Monday, January 27, 2014. Coyle headed the department’s discredited and now-defunct Neighborhood Narcotics Unit.

Salt Lake County, Utah – Last week, West Valley City agreed to pay out $650,000 to settle two federal court cases filed amidst allegations of police misconduct and the controversial disbanding of the discredited Neighborhood Narcotics Unit several years ago.

The city awarded half a million to Terry and Brandy Christiansen, who filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2014 alleging West Valley City police officers violated their civil rights and used excessive force during a 2012 drug bust.

And they agreed to pay $150,000 to Dante Donell Ketchens and Danielle Swasey, who claimed in a 2013 federal lawsuit that the agency’s narcotics officers violated their constitutional rights when they detained their family and searched their home without a warrant in 2012.

“It was determined that these settlements would be in the best financial interests of the city, thereby avoiding a long and expensive appeal process in the Christiansen case and a trial in the Swasey case,” city officials said in a Friday statement.

The settlements were reached last week, according to court records. Payment amounts were made public Friday in response to a Tribune records request, though other details of the settlements were confidential.

The lawyers who represented both couples in court did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A jury last August awarded the Christiansens nearly $300,000, finding two officers — Lt. John Coyle and Detective Sean McCarthy — violated the couple’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure, though jurors did not find the officers used excessive force or violated the couple’s right to be free from unreasonable search.
The city, however, appealed the jury verdict, arguing in court papers that the verdict was inconsistent and contradictory.

The Christiansens claimed that during an Oct. 26, 2012 incident, Coyle slammed the husband’s head into walls, knocked his teeth loose and held him in a choke hold until he was unconscious.

The wife was illegally searched about four times, the lawsuit alleges, including by McCarthy, who she claims put his hands down her pants and touched her vaginal area under the guise of looking for drugs.

The husband and wife were both arrested, and Terry Christiansen was later charged with aggravated assault, drug and weapon charges. Terry Christiansen spent six months in jail before the charges were dropped — though they were later refiled and then dismissed once more — while his wife spent a few days in custody and no charges were ever filed against her.

In the Ketchens/Swasey lawsuit, the couple alleged West Valley City officers followed Ketchens to his home on Aug. 15, 2012, and then ransacked the house without a warrant while looking for drugs. Ketchens and Swasey were handcuffed and held for more than eight hours, leaving Swasey unable to adequately comfort or care for her infant daughter, who needed a diaper change. Swasey was made to feed her daughter while wearing handcuffs, the court papers say.

According to the documents, officers only sought a warrant for the search after combing through the home and then they forged Ketchens’ signature on the papers before arresting him on a drug-possession allegation.
Ketchens was released from jail within days of the August 2012 incident. He was arrested again on Sept. 7, 2012, while at a barbershop with his son.

He was charged with drug crimes in federal court but was released Dec. 17, 2012, after the case was dismissed.
Detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon, along with McCarthy and Coyle, were listed defendants in the Ketchens case.

Both Ketchens and Terry Christiansen were defendants in the more than 125 cases tossed by state and federal prosecutors after West Valley City police came under fire for alleged corruption and misconduct, including the November 2012 fatal shooting of 21-year-old Danielle Willard involving Cowley and Salmon.

The shooting occurred after the two detectives had approached Willard’s parked car, believing she had just bought drugs. When Willard backed out of the parking space, Cowley said he feared she was trying to run over him and both officers fired their guns.

Cowley’s bullet fatally struck Willard in the head, while one of Salmon’s shots grazed her chin.

The Salt Lake District Attorney deemed the shooting unjustified, and Cowley was charged with manslaughter. A judge, however, dismissed the charge at the preliminary hearing stage after finding there was insufficient evidence for the case to move forward.