Salt Lake City officer used ‘excessive force’ when ordering dog to bite teen

The Civilian Review Board report is the latest criticism of Salt Lake City’s use of police dogs to apprehend suspects.

(Screenshot via Salt Lake City Police Department/YouTube) Police body camera footage from June 5, 2020, shows a 14-year-old boy, who was a burglary suspect, with his hands in the air before a Salt Lake City police officer pulled him off a counter and ordered a police dog to bite him.

When Salt Lake City police officers came to investigate a reported burglary one early morning in June, they found a darkened Burger King filled with fire extinguisher smoke.

They called for the suspected burglar, who was still inside, to surrender.

“Come out or I’m going to send the dog,” K-9 handler D. Clawson yelled, according to his body camera footage. “You will get bit.”

Clawson’s dog, Jaeger, was sent inside a few moments later. Clawson followed, yelling at the dog to “hit” and “get that guy” as a teenage boy stood on the counter, his hands in the air.

The body camera footage shows that Clawson pulled the boy from the counter as he continued to yell for his dog to bite. Jaeger latched onto the boy’s leg, as Clawson pushed the boy’s face into the floor tiles.

“Please,” the boy yelled. “I’m a 14-year-old.”

Clawson later said he felt it was necessary to order the dog to bite the boy. But Salt Lake City’s Civilian Review Board said in a new ruling that it amounted to “excessive force.”

The board’s investigator Rick Rasmussen declined to comment on the report, which was briefly posted online Friday and has since been removed because the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office was still reviewing the case for criminal charges.

The report is the latest criticism of Salt Lake City’s use of police dogs to apprehend suspects. Mayor Erin Mendenhall indefinitely suspended the program in September after a review showed what she described as a “pattern of abuse of power.”

The police department conducted this internal review after The Salt Lake Tribune published bodycam footage in August that showed Officer Nickolas Pearce ordered his dog Tuco to bite a Black man on his knees with his hands in the air.

The police department asked the Civilian Review Board to review this case and others. A department spokesperson did not respond to The Tribune’s request for comment on the finding.

The review board makes recommendations, but it’s up to the police department to take action. It’s not clear whether supervisors disciplined Clawson in this case. Salt Lake City police have said its K-9 officers who are under review have been on administrative leave since September.

Police officials have also given body camera footage to the district attorney’s office to be reviewed for criminal charges against the officers involved.

Police Chief Mike Brown said in September that his office had reviewed 27 times where police dogs bit someone since 2018. They flagged 18 of those cases — 66% — as possibly criminal.

So far, the District Attorney’s Office has filed assault charges against Pearce. District Attorney Sim Gill said it’s “definitely in the realm of possibility” that more Salt Lake City officers could face criminal charges for ordering their police dogs to bite suspects.

Gill’s office has requested police records from agencies across the county as part of a review of their K-9 apprehension programs. He said they’re getting close to completing their review of Salt Lake City’s cases, and expect to release their findings — and possibly more criminal charges — in the next few weeks.

“We are running across stuff that has given us concern,” Gill said. “We wouldn’t be viewing these cases if there wasn’t a basis of concern.”

Gill wouldn’t specifically address Clawson’s case, where his dog bit the 14-year-old last summer.

The Civilian Review Board in its decision found that Clawson did not follow the K-9 training taught at Utah’s police academy. The report says officers are not trained to “command his/her K-9 to a bite a subject who appears to be surrendering, and hold the subject’s head down to the ground while the K-9 is biting.”

The review board also noted that after Jaeger let go of the boy, another officer told the dog “Good boy, Jaeger, good boy.” This portion of the body camera footage was not released by Salt Lake City police, who distributed portions of questionable dog bite incidents to the public in October.

The Civilian Review Board noted that police are trained to not praise the dog by saying “good boy” because it can be “easily construed to suggest that the handler (or other officer) is happy with the fact that the K-9 got to bite a subject.”

Clawson said in an interview with investigators that he felt he had to use the police dog to arrest the boy because another officer told him the teen was holding a pair of scissors. But that officer also told Clawson the boy had dropped the scissors prior to Jaeger being ordered to attack.

“[Clawson] did not believe he had access to any other tools that could have been used when facing a person with an edged weapon,” the report reads. “It wasn’t until the subject was placed into custody that he noted the young age of the subject.”

The other officer, Miles Southworth, said in his interview with the Civilian Review Board that he felt ordering the dog to bite was a “really good option” because the teen was “aggressive,” and once he stood on top of the counter, the officers could not tase him. Salt Lake City policy says officers can’t tase someone if it would result in a fall from a height that would cause serious injuries.

“Officers are also trained that a person armed with an edged weapon are responded to by a gun,” the report reads. “Off. Southworth was concerned that the subject’s actions could lead to a use of deadly force.”

But the Citizen Review Board disagreed, finding that the force was excessive.

Were you bit by a police dog in Salt Lake County? Reporter Jessica Miller is interested in hearing about your experience. Email her at jmiller@sltrib.com.