West Valley City releases bodycam showing police dogs biting dozens of people

(Screenshot of West Valley City police video) Police body camera footage shows an interaction between a suspect and a K-9 on May 29, 2020.

West Valley City police released body camera and police reports Monday for 25 times when police dogs bit suspects over a nearly three-year period — the latest Salt Lake County police agency to do so after video surfaced of a Salt Lake City police officer ordering his dog to bite a Black man who was on his knees with his hands in the air.

While Salt Lake City police identified many of their cases as problematic and flagged them for review for criminal charges against the officers involved, officials in West Valley City said they saw no issues within their own department.

“Every single one of these has been through our use of force review,” Chief Colleen Jacobs said, “and the supervisors have found them within policy and our citizen review board found them within policy.”

The chief said they released the videos as part of their “commitment to transparency,” but the move came after the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office filed a records request as part of a review of all K-9 programs in the county. The district attorney’s review was sparked by a Salt Lake Tribune story about an April encounter where Salt Lake City Officer Nickolas Pearce ordered his dog Tuco to bite Jeffery Ryans, who was complying with the officers' orders.

Pearce was charged with a felony, and Salt Lake City police indefinitely suspended their K-9 apprehension program as a result.

The Tribune also sought West Valley City’s K-9 bite records, but was initially told it would be released only after the newspaper paid more than $6,000 to redact police reports and body camera footage.

The department on Monday instead released heavily redacted and edited bodycam footage from 18 incidents where a police dog bit someone, while seven others reports were released but there was no bodycam available.

The videos blurred out the faces of suspects, and muted some foul language. It contained paragraphs of text that emphasized that the district attorney or a city prosecutor had reviewed each of the cases — but Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill clarified on Monday that his office has never looked at the officer’s action in those cases.

“None of these have ever been presented to us in the context of use of force,” he said. “It’s not inconceivable, with any agency, that you can have an unlawful use of force and still have a defendant who can be criminally charged.”

But West Valley City’s police chief said Monday that she’s confident that Gill’s office won’t find any questionable cases in her department.

Jacobs said that as controversy has halted Salt Lake City’s K-9 program, they’ve looked at their own program and how it could be better. One example, she said, was when an officer tells a police dog that he’s a “good boy,” as the dog is biting a suspect. Many in the public, she said, might interpret that as an officer who is happy that someone is hurt.

“So they’ve changed their tactics,” she said, “and how they praise the dog later, as opposed to just right in that moment.”

The videos released Monday involved several suspects who were either fleeing from stolen vehicles or hiding while officers attempted to find and arrest them. One woman was bit in September 2018 as she hid in some bushes after running away from police in the area on a report of a suspicious vehicle.

“Yep, that’s why you don’t run from the police,” the officer says as the woman whimpers in pain. “Good boy!”

In a February 2020 case, police ordered a dog to bite after they tracked down a man who had just bitten off his brother’s ear in an argument. The man stood with his hands in the air, but didn’t comply with orders to get on the ground. A K-9 named Tank was released, and bit the man’s chest, pulling him to the ground.

Jacobs said there was a single case where a suspect had to be hospitalized for injuries from a dog bite. That happened May 29, when Tank and his handler were trying to find a man accused of stalking his ex-girlfriend at her father’s house. The dog nipped the suspect as he climbed a fence, and then bit his handler in confusion as the officer also climbed a fence. The officer eventually caught up to the suspect, and Tank bit the man and pulled him down off a fence he was trying to climb.

Gill said West Valley City is one of eight departments that his office has sought records from to determine if any other officers have improperly used K-9 force against Utahns.

The district attorney said that after his office charged Pearce, the officer who ordered his dog to bite Ryans, it became apparent there was “definitely a flaw in the system,” because his office had thought cases of questionable dog bites were being sent to his office.

That wasn’t happening, he said, so they are now in the middle of their own review.