When police dogs attack: Utah suspects have been bitten when they appear to be surrendering

Salt Lake Tribune/FOX 13 investigation finds K-9s ordered to bite people who have their hands up.

(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.

Editor’s Note • The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13 collaborated on this investigation.

The scars cover his legs, a constant reminder of that early June morning when a Salt Lake City police dog sunk its teeth into him.

The teen had been found inside a closed Burger King at 2 a.m., when an officer ordered the K-9 to attack. The boy’s parents later counted more than 37 puncture wounds, running from his calves to his groin.

The teenager doesn’t remember why he was at the fast-food restaurant, his attorney said. He had been at a party, and his memory is fuzzy from there.

But body camera footage captured what happened June 5, 2020.

Salt Lake City officers arrived to investigate a reported burglary. They called for the boy to come out and surrender or an officer would send in his dog, Jaeger.

Moments later, Jaeger ran inside and Officer D. Clawson followed, yelling for his dog to “hit” and “get that guy” as the boy stood on the counter, his hands in the air.

The footage shows that Clawson pulled the boy from the counter as he continued to shout 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.”

Pete Sorensen, the boy’s civil attorney, said it wasn’t necessary for the police dog to bite the teenager — who was surrendering.

“He wasn’t attempting to flee,” the attorney said. “He was engaging with the police. There was no need at that point to use what we would label as excessive force.”

This boy is not the only person in Salt Lake County who was seemingly surrendering when a police dog attacked.

The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13 analyzed 39 body camera videos from the three largest police departments in the county — Salt Lake City, Unified and West Valley City. In 20% of those videos, suspects had their hands up or were facedown when they were bit. A majority of those involved Salt Lake City police.

In seven cases, a police dog continued to bite even after a suspect was handcuffed and in police control. Most of those happened in West Valley City.

These videos from the past two years are part of a countywide investigation launched by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill into how police use K-9s. So far, Gill has charged Salt Lake City Officer Nickolas Pearce with two felonies involving two separate cases. The prosecutor’s review was prompted by a Tribune story that included body camera footage of Pearce ordering his dog to bite a Black man who had his hands up.

While K-9 units elsewhere in the county are still operating, Salt Lake City officials have suspended their program as they grapple with the question: Do these dogs — and their often-brutal attacks — have a place in modern policing?

After the dog bites

One video shows a West Valley City police dog spotting a suspect hiding in some bushes after running away from a traffic stop. The dog latched onto his shoulder, causing the suspect to cry out in pain. He crawled out of the bushes and four officers stood over him.

“Stop fighting!” one of the officers told the suspect as the dog continued to bite.

He cried in response: “I’m just a kid!”

The news agencies received some of these videos through public records requests. Salt Lake City released videos on its own, though not all of the encounters between police dogs and suspects. Gill’s team is reviewing all of them from every department in the county, for a total of 106 encounters.

Some of the videos reviewed by The Tribune and FOX 13 show suspects who try to push the dog away are told to stop resisting, and the bite continues until they hold still. Some suspects faced criminal charges for trying to get the dog away from them, such as resisting arrest or assaulting a police officer.

Anu Asnaani, a psychology professor at the University of Utah and licensed clinical psychologist, said it’s not realistic to expect people to stay still when an animal is attacking them — especially if they are scared of dogs or have been bit in the past.

“If you’re asking someone to freeze, if they are interpreting that their life is in danger, it’s highly unlikely that they are going to be able to freeze,” she said. “And they’re not being noncompliant, it is an evolutionary, built-in reaction that all of us have, regardless of what is happening, to protect ourselves.”

Other videos showed the K-9 not biting when ordered to, and in one instance, biting his own handler during a chase.

Richard Polsky, who holds a doctorate in animal behavior from the University of Leicester in England and often testifies as an expert witness in court, said that while police dogs have a legitimate purpose, they are often unpredictable. They sometimes bite people they aren’t supposed to, the California man said, or don’t release when they are told to do so.

“They are useful in certain situations as long as they can be controlled,” he said. “And that’s the problem. The cops don’t understand — these dogs, given their nature, given the kind of training, they’re very difficult to control.”

Questionable cases

In the past eight years, Unified police officials have paid out nearly $135,000 to people bit by a police dog, according to public records.

The largest payout was $65,000 to a woman in 2013. Her attorney wrote in a notice of claim that the woman had heard police ask her boyfriend to come out of their hotel room and surrender, but she was never given instructions. She stood still, “afraid the police would shoot,” until an officer kicked the door open and the dog bit her crotch — dragging her outside of the room, then biting her once more in the leg while shaking its head back and forward.

Unified police also paid money to a handful of other people who have been bit, as well as nearly $2,000 to a woman whose dog was attacked by a Unified K-9 that had broken through a fence.

Salt Lake City paid nearly $40,000 to a man who was seriously injured after an officer sicced his dog on him while responding to a disturbance call outside the downtown courthouse. Prosecutors later charged the man with assaulting a police officer, interfering with arrest and disorderly conduct after he “struggled and refused to comply” while being bit. The police made the unusual move of arresting him in front of reporters after the man announced his lawsuit, but the charges were ultimately dismissed.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jackie Sanchez is searched by the Salt Lake City Police in front of a half dozen tv cameras as he is arrested by Salt Lake City police, after a media conference in his attorney's office about the abuse of force claim that is being filed against the Salt Lake City Police, after Sanchez was attacked by a police dog on July 28. Wednesday, December 6, 2017.

There are at least two potential lawsuits on the horizon for Salt Lake City. Lawyers for the boy who was at the Burger King say they will soon file litigation, and negotiations are pending in the case of Jeffery Ryans, a Black man who was was kneeling and had his hands in the air when the dog bit him.

This litigation didn’t appear to raise any alarms about potential systemic issues within the city’s K-9 program. It was filed before The Tribune published the body camera footage of this arrest. After that, the department conducted an internal review and found what Mayor Erin Mendenhall called a “pattern of abuse.

Gill, the prosecutor, said that video release made him realize police weren’t sending him questionable dog bite cases so his team could review an officer’s conduct. He launched his own investigation and is now reviewing 106 cases from seven agencies for potential criminal charges.

Gill said police departments need to put better processes in place to report K-9 bites to his office. If that’s not robust enough, he said they’ll continue periodic reviews like the one they are currently doing. There are some cases, he said, that might be problematic, but his office can’t pursue them because the statute of limitations has passed.

“It does demonstrate a flaw in the system,” he said. “I think it’s important for us to recognize that flaw so we don’t continue to make that mistake over and over again. And if we don’t address that issue, then we erode the trust of our community.”

In defense of police dogs

This review has also comes at a cost to officers, said Joe McBride, president of the Salt Lake Police Association. The K-9 handlers in Salt Lake City are on leave pending the investigation, and McBride said officers worry about who could be next.

“One of the biggest concerns is all of these cases, or most of these cases, have already been reviewed by the D.A.’s office,” he said. “When these officers deployed their dogs, most of them had criminal charges come from those cases. So, nothing was originally caught in that.”

Gill said that his prosecutors were often focused more on whether there was evidence to prove a suspect had committed a crime and weren’t necessarily reviewing what an officer was doing. He said his office could have been more thorough, but it’s also the responsibility of police departments to flag cases that may be inappropriate.

“It is both logically plausible that a police officer could have violated the law simultaneously with a defendant having violated the law in another issue,” he said. “So what is the mechanism for holding both parties equally accountable when they cross that threshold?”

West Valley City Police Chief Colleen Jacobs has said she is confident Gill won’t find problems within her department. She said after the controversy in Salt Lake City, her department looked at how it uses police dogs and how it could be better.

One example, she said, was when an officer tells a dog 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,” Jacobs said, “and how they praise the dog later, as opposed to just right in that moment.”

McBride said he worries that some departments might get rid of K-9s altogether because of Gill’s review. He said the dogs are “one of the most versatile tools we have” and can be used to find suspects who are hiding in small places or during encounters when it’s too dangerous to send an officer.

“They prevent way more uses of force than they are ever involved in,” he said.

McBride said that even though some of the videos showed dogs biting people with their hands in the air or surrendering, it doesn’t mean they were obeying all of the officer’s commands.

“Just because someone’s hands are up or they are laying on the ground, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are compliant,” he said. “If there’s a situation where they can have access to a weapon or they can flee or they can do something that puts officers in jeopardy, they aren’t necessarily compliant.”

Seeking change

Sorensen, the attorney for the boy bitten at the Burger King, said it’s difficult to hold K-9 units accountable, and the dogs are an “enigma” in policing.

“We treat a K-9 like an officer when it’s killed in the line of duty,” Sorensen said. “But then we can throw our hands up in another legal situation and say, ‘Well it’s just the dog being the dog. And we don’t have any control over the accident that the dog inflicted when hurting someone.’ "

Sorensen said the family he represents wants the officer to face charges, and wants more training put in place for K-9s and their handlers. Utah took a step in this direction this year after the state Legislature passed a bill that requires K-9s and their handlers to be certified, and to be recertified every year.

Salt Lake City’s Civilian Review Board found the officer used “excessive force” against the 14-year-old, but Gill hasn’t yet decided whether to file charges in that case.

The damage, Sorensen said, goes beyond the scars on the teenager’s legs. He’s become more withdrawn and is terrified of dogs — so much so that his family had to get rid of their pet.