Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall promised transparency last year after an audit of the police department’s K-9 apprehension unit had found what she called a “pattern of abuse of power.”
The department announced at that same September news conference that it would forward cases to the district attorney for potential criminal charges, and planned to publicly release body camera footage showing questionable instances where officers ordered police dogs to bite suspects.
Mendenhall said the release of these videos was the best way to remedy what had happened in the department.
“We are going to do what is right,” she said, “what is just, and we are going to be open and transparent as we go about this work. I truly believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant. And we are here to shine that light on this stain on our department.”
But the city and the police department has thus far been selective about when it decides to be transparent.
In October, city officials released body camera footage in 19 cases which they deemed questionable. But Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill is currently reviewing 34 videos for potential criminal charges.
One of the videos the public hasn’t seen: Footage that allegedly shows a police officer picking up his K-9 so the dog could bite a woman who had put her arms out of the window of a suspected stolen vehicle. That officer, Nickolas Pearce, is facing a felony charge for that attack, his second charge for ordering his dog to bite someone who prosecutors say wasn’t a threat.
The Salt Lake Tribune recently sought that footage and the other videos Salt Lake City has not yet released. The city is refusing, saying making those videos public would interfere with the criminal investigation it asked for.
“It is concerning that the mayor initially promised full transparency of police use of force, but has not delivered on that promise,” said Mike O’Brien, a media attorney who represents The Tribune. “Her initial instincts were right. The public needs to verify that force is used properly. Transparency will not interfere with an ongoing investigation, it will give it credibility.”
The Tribune has appealed the city’s decision to Utah’s state records committee, arguing city officials have not shown how the unreleased videos are materially different from the footage they chose to release already.
Lindsey Nikola, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said the decision to not release all of the footage was made after consulting with the district attorney’s office.
“The city was advised by the district attorney’s office that release of the requested records could reasonably be expected to interfere with their investigation,” a statement reads, “and in order to protect the integrity of the investigation we have decided to wait until the conclusion of the D.A.’s work before reevaluating their release.”
Gill, the district attorney, said that investigation is still pending and that his office did make that request. But that’s a limited view of what has transpired.
His office is currently reviewing more than 100 dog bite cases from seven agencies, an inquiry that was launched after The Tribune published a story that included body camera footage showing Pearce ordering his dog to bite a Black man who had his hands up.
Gill said that video 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 has so far charged Pearce with the two felonies.
Salt Lake City did its own internal audit and held that September news conference where the mayor promised transparency.
Gill said Salt Lake City officials didn’t consult with his office about the release of the first 19 videos and only asked after The Tribune sought the additional footage.
The district attorney said it’s his office’s preference that agencies not release body camera footage or other evidence until after an investigation is complete, but noted that cities often make that information public before his office reaches a conclusion — like Salt Lake City did with a portion of the K-9 body camera videos.
Salt Lake City also has a policy of releasing body camera footage of police shootings 10 days after an incident. That policy runs afoul of Gill’s recommendation and yet the city still releases the video.
“While I can caution agencies about those concerns, agencies can follow or don’t follow my advice,” said the district attorney. “All I can do [is say] out of an abundance of caution, anything presented to this office should not be released. Each agency has to make their own decisions.”
Salt Lake City officials have suspended their K-9 apprehension program as Gill’s review continues. The department’s police dogs are still allowed to work in other areas, like sniffing out drugs, but can’t be used in arresting people.
A recent investigation by The Tribune and FOX 13 found that K-9s in Salt Lake County were sometimes ordered to bite people who had their hands up or were lying face down.
The news agencies 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.