Salt Lake City finds ‘pattern of abuse’ when police use dogs to bite suspects

(Screenshot via Salt Lake City Police Department) Body camera footage shows a police K-9 biting the leg of Jeffrey Ryans in April. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020 that the K9 officer involved in the incident has been suspended pending an investigation.

After bodycam footage showed a Salt Lake City police officer ordering his dog to bite a Black man on his knees with his hands in the air, department officials launched a review of times when police dogs had been used during an arrest.

What they found, according to Mayor Erin Mendenhall, was a “pattern of abuse of power.”

Police Chief Mike Brown said Friday that his office reviewed 27 times where police dogs bit someone since 2018.

They flagged 18 of those cases — 66% — to the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office to be screened for criminal charges. The city’s civilian review board will also review, the chief said, as will the internal affairs department. The district attorney’s office says it will review all 27 cases.

The review highlights a failure within the police department’s reporting process that requires officers to report times when officers use force up the chain of command.

Neither the chief nor the mayor nor the district attorney were aware of the dog bite that sparked this review until The Salt Lake Tribune published the bodycam footage in August. That video shows an April encounter where Officer Nickolas Pearce ordered his dog Tuco to bite Jeffery Ryans, who was complying with the officers' orders.

The civilian review board found that city leaders didn’t know about the use of force because Pearce’s supervising lieutenant never reported it to upper management, as required by policy. That lieutenant has since retired, according to the board’s findings.

But Brown’s announcement that a large portion of K-9 bites will be referred for criminal charges indicate that a reporting problem was more widespread than just Ryans' case.

Mendenhall said Friday that policy changes have been made to ensure no use of force goes unreported up the proper chain of command again.

“The culture of an organization is shaped by the worst behavior a leader is willing to tolerate,” she said. “We are here to tell you that this culture ends here and now.”

Brown also announced Friday that the department’s use of police dogs on suspects will be suspended “indefinitely,” as officials continue to review cases going back further than 2018. Police dogs will still be allowed to work in other areas, like sniffing out drugs, but can’t be used in arresting people.

The chief said that in 2020, police dogs bit 11 people. Nine of those were referred for criminal charges against the officer. In 2019, there were 10 cases, five of which are being reviewed. And in 2018, there were six dog bite cases. Four are under review.

The police officers involved in those questionable cases will be put on administrative leave, but department officials did not say Friday how many officers that would be.

Attorneys for Ryans, who plans to sue the city, argue their client faced police violence because he is Black.

Police were at Ryans' home to investigate a call of domestic abuse and were arresting Ryans because he had a restraining order against him. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill’s office charged Pearce with a second-degree felony aggravated assault for ordering Tuco to bite Ryans.

Ryans “wasn’t resisting arrest,” Gill said. “He certainly wasn’t posing an imminent threat of violence or harm to anyone and he certainly wasn’t concealed. He was fenced in an area and was being compliant.”

Gill said Friday that his office sought records of other K-9 bites in mid-August so they could review those cases after deciding to charge Pearce. He called the police department’s disclosures Friday “a vital step toward restoring public faith in law enforcement.”

“We will review all materials provided to our office in connection with our records request and we will act as appropriate and necessary to fulfill and perform our statutory duties consistent with the law,” he said in a statement. “This means carefully reviewing and investigating allegations of criminal conduct.”

The district attorney’s records request, sent Aug. 14, asks for records of police dog bites from 2018 to the present — the same time frame that Brown’s department used in its review.

Gill noted in his request that though there was a law passed last year requiring any use of deadly force be forwarded to his office for review, police agencies in Salt Lake County hadn’t been sending cases of injuries caused by police dogs to the district attorney.

“Yet it seems to us that K-9s, when used as trained and intended in apprehending suspects, are reasonably ‘likely to create’ a ‘substantial likelihood of ... serious bodily injury,’” he wrote, “thereby justifying incidents of K-9-caused injuries being addressed under the [Officer Involved Critical Incident] statute and protocols.”

The department has seven police dogs, said Steven Winters, the president of the Salt Lake City Police Association. He did not immediately return a request for comment Friday but earlier this month said he felt suspending the K-9 apprehension program was a politically motivated “knee-jerk reaction."

“Suspending this program is very dangerous not just for the officer, but the public,” he said. “It’s an intermediary tool. ... It’s just one element that is now taken away from our arsenal of tools.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah on Friday called for a deeper audit of not just use-of-force instances by Salt Lake City police, but other police agencies throughout Utah.

“We call for transparency into these identified incidents and accountability regarding specifics of these incidents, the individuals involved and aware of the possible misconduct, and the responses taken prior to today’s announcement,” a statement reads.

The ACLU added that Friday’s announcement “confirmed that the Salt Lake City Police Department is not immune from excessive force and police abuse” and called suspending the use of police dogs against suspects the “right first step.”

After the initial Tribune story in August, Mendenhall ordered the temporary suspension of the use of K-9s “to engage with suspects,” to allow for a review.

Mendenhall said Friday that city officials are working to rebuild the trust of city residents.

“We will not tolerate an abuse of power that harms the people we serve,” she said, “and harms the reputations of our good officers who are dedicated to serving in a fair, accountable and transparent way.”

Mendenhall called the situation a “stain on our department,” which she said will be remedied by transparency and shining a light on the cases in question. As part of that, the city plans to release body camera footage of the 18 dog bites within the next two weeks.

While city officials promised transparency, they did not answer questions from reporters during a Friday news conference about the review or how many officers were on leave.

The mayor said she’s not ready to outright cancel the department’s K-9 apprehension program, saying they need to do more research about how K-9s are used elsewhere.

But Brown told The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board recently that information on the best practices for the use of police dogs is not readily available.

“You would be very surprised at the limited amount of information that’s out there,” he said.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), told the editorial board that when his organization tried to study the issue, they couldn’t find guidelines for K-9s that had already been published. He said they tried to develop their own guidelines by looking at policies around the country.

“It’s definitely a serious use of force,” he said. “It should not be used indiscriminately. But there were not best practices. And I think that’s like a lot of things in policing we’re discovering.”

PERF’s report says that police dogs should be used to apprehend someone only after an officer gives a warning and “ample time” is given for the person to surrender. It says handlers should also consider “non-canine options” before ordering a dog to bite.

Some agencies, they noted, only allow the use of police dogs when a suspect is wanted for a serious felony or is believed to be armed.

PERF also advises that police dogs be removed as quickly as possible from a suspect as soon as someone is brought into custody.

Salt Lake City’s policies say a dog may be used to apprehend someone if an officer “reasonably believes” that a suspect has committed or is threatening to commit any serious crime and the person poses “an imminent threat of violence or serious harm” to someone else or if the suspect is physically resisting or threatening to resist arrest. Dogs can also be used to apprehend someone who is hiding from the police, according to the SLCPD policy.

The policy states that without the belief that a person committed a serious offense, “the use of a canine as a weapon” is prohibited if someone is merely trying to run away from an officer.

When a dog does bite someone, SLCPD policy says a supervisor and watch commander should be promptly notified, and a use-of-force report should be completed.