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Salt Lake City police department clears officer who shot dog
Investigation » Dog owner says the cop entered his fenced back yard illegally, vows to continue the fight.
First Published Aug 01 2014 09:38 am • Last Updated Aug 01 2014 10:40 pm

The Salt Lake City Police Department said Friday that a police officer "acted within policy" when he shot a dog in its own fenced backyard last month during a search for a missing 3-year-old boy.

Officer Brett Olsen reasonably believed deadly force was necessary to protect himself from being killed or seriously injured by the dog, a Weimaraner named Geist, according to the police department.

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The results of the department’s Internal Affairs investigation are similar to those released Friday by the independent Civilian Review Board, which exonerated Olsen for the complaint of excessive force the dog’s owner lodged against him.

The dog’s owner, Sean Kendall, maintains that Olsen entered his fenced back yard illegally and has vowed to pursue legal action against the department.

"It was with great disappointment the Salt Lake City Police Department has chosen to toe the thin blue line instead of uphold their oath to the sovereign country and state they are employed by," Kendall told reporters who gathered at his Sugar House home Friday afternoon.

"When Brett Olsen opened my gate, he violated my constitutionally protected right to privacy, and he then illegally seized and killed Geist," Kendall said.

Olsen shot Geist on June 18 during a search for a missing boy, who was later found asleep in his own basement.

The police department has received hundreds of emails asking for Olsen’s termination, and rallies have been held outside police headquarters and in front of the Utah Capitol.

The review board report says it found Olsen was authorized to enter the yard under the "exigent circumstances" exception to obtaining a search warrant, and that Olsen feared for his safety when he shot Geist.

"… the issue is simply: were [Olsen’s] actions, based upon what he knew at that time, reasonable and within the law and policy on the use of deadly force?" the board wrote in its report.

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The review board report noted Olsen had helped search for Destiny Norton, the 5-year-old girl who disappeared in Salt Lake City in 2006. She was found eight days later murdered in her neighbor’s basement. The report said Olsen worried that the longer the boy was missing, the more likely a similar scenario would occur.

So Olsen entered the yard without a warrant, but under what he considered to be exigent circumstances — scenarios recognized by the courts under which police can search to eliminate immediate threats. Olsen had been told the boy did not respond when people talked to him, so Olsen did not call for him.

Kendall said he had anticipated the reports’ findings, but did not believe Olsen’s decision to enter the yard met the exigent circumstances requirement.

Paul G. Cassell, a criminal law professor at the University of Utah, saidofficers "have to clear a high bar to demonstrate exigent circumstances," emphasizing that he did not know enough about the Geist case to form a specific opinion about it.

"The legal standard is not precise," Cassell said. "The courts don’t impose arbitrary and mechanical rules when assessing exigent circumstances. Instead, they look at the totality of circumstances and try to determine whether there is a serious need for immediate emergency action."

Cassell added that it is "extremely unusual" for an officer to enter a gated backyard, which the law treats similarly to a home, "the most highly protected area under constitutional law," Cassell said.

On the day of the shooting, after another officer determined that Kendall was not home, Olsen looked over the fence and then entered Kendall’s yard — but did not immediately see or hear Geist. Olsen was in the yard for about a minute when he closed a shed door, which alerted Geist to his presence.

The dog emitted what Olsen described as an "angry" bark, the report says. Geist was 20 to 25 feet away when he started charging.

Olsen was worried the dog would bite and give him a "serious bodily injury," a term in state law that permits use of deadly force, according to the review board report.

The report says Olsen backed up and, when Geist was about 10 feet away, he drew his pistol. Olsen considered reaching for his Taser, the report says, but decided he did not have enough time and was not sure the prongs would lodge in the dog.

Olsen fired two rounds from a distance of about 4 feet, according to the report. Twenty-one minutes after the shooting, the child was found under a box and blankets, overlooked during a previous search by parents and police.

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