Robert Gehrke: Vicious police attack on an unarmed Black man proves talk of reform only goes so far

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Over the years I’ve seen my share of body camera footage, but watching Salt Lake City police turning a dog on Jeffery Ryans was particularly hard.

The attack itself is short, but brutal enough I had to stop in the middle and take a break. Ryans was smoking a cigarette in his backyard before heading to work in April when police responded to a neighbor’s report of an argument.

He did what police requested, kneeling in the corner of the yard when an officer ordered the dog, Tuco, to attack. “Hit! Hit!” you hear the officer instruct the dog, and the dog did as it was trained, sinking its teeth into Ryans leg and tearing at the flesh while Ryans shouts that he wasn’t doing anything wrong.

“Good boy,” the officer encouraged Tuco again and again as the dog pulled at Ryans’ achilles tendon with another officer kneeling on Ryans’ back handcuffing him. “Good boy. Good boy. Good boy. Good boy.”

As a Black man who grew up in Alabama, Ryans told my colleague Jessica Miller that he was taught to follow orders from police — the same guidance that so many Black parents in Utah have given to their children.

And that’s exactly what Ryans did. The body camera footage preceding the incident shows him doing his best to comply with the officers’ contradictory orders. He didn’t instigate. He didn’t resist. He stayed put, kept his hands up, told police where they could find the gate to the backyard, and was getting down on his knees as the officer approached with a snarling dog telling him, “You’re gonna get bit.”

For all the high-minded rhetoric about the extensive de-escalation training Salt Lake City officers get and how important it is, none of that mattered here.

Ryans’ wife had a protective order against him, but he said she had asked to have it lifted — although the hearing had not taken place — and he had been living in the house.

Ryans suffered gruesome gashes on his ankle, both on the front and back of his leg, and tendon and nerve damage. In late July, his attorney notified the police department that he planned to sue the department — and he should.

On Tuesday, nearly four months after the incident occurred and three weeks after the city was notified of the coming lawsuit, the police department said it launched an internal investigation of the incident, which it claims to have learned about in The Tribune.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall tweeted Tuesday that she’s limited in what she can say because of the lawsuit, but she has stressed to Chief Mike Brown “the urgency to complete the internal affairs investigation … and be as transparent as possible with the public about the process and results.”

Detective Greg Wilking said he wishes the department had learned of it sooner. “I worry about that. I don’t want any officer that uses excessive force out on the street,” if, Wilking said, that’s what the investigation finds.

This would be better handled by an outside investigation. Under state law, the use of force that “creates or is likely to create … a substantial likelihood of death or serious bodily injury” is required to be investigated by an outside agency. Ryans didn’t die, although I think he would contend that Tuco inflicted serious bodily injury.

But this goes way beyond a single incident. Bookended by the killings of Breonna Taylor, shot to death when police in Kentucky executed a no-knock warrant, and George Floyd, suffocated by officers in Minneapolis, Ryans’ encounter forces us to look at how police use their power here at home.

Over the past two years, Black people, who make up just over 2% of Salt Lake City’s population, were on the receiving end of 10% of the more than 1,650 police use-of-force incidents, which counts everything from when police fire their guns, use a police dog or scuffle with a suspect.

Last week, Mendenhall announced a significant change to police policies, signing an executive order requiring officers to use de-escalation tactics, add some teeth to the department’s body camera policies, and require a driver’s consent for the search of a vehicle.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has put forward a thoughtful and comprehensive list of recommendations on how to deal with future police shootings aimed at ratcheting back an officer’s ability to kill a suspect with near-impunity if he or she feels threatened.

Even the Fraternal Order of Police — which called Mendenhall’s reforms “dangerous experiments” — has offered some of its own proposals, including completing investigations into complaints of police misconduct and making the results public, letting cities establish civilian review boards within certain parameters, and training on non-lethal force.

The FOP plan is by no means adequate, but it is significant that they’re engaged in the conversation and their recommendations offer a starting point, noncontroversial reforms that could be enacted quickly and easily.

Watching Ryans mauled in the backyard of his home, it was impossible to ignore the history of dogs being used against Black Americans, from hounds hunting runaway slaves to officers turning the snarling animals on civil rights protesters in the South.

Each year, 3,500 people ended up in emergency rooms due to police canine bites. And the dogs are disproportionately used against Black and Latino people. A study released last year found that 42% of the 33,000 people bitten by police dogs were Black.

As Mendenhall’s Commission on Racial Equity in Policing discusses other potential reforms — as does the Legislature and other cities and counties around the state — they would be well-served to watch the brutal video of Ryans being taken down and put the issue of restricting the use of police dogs high on their list of topics.