Utah senator says people should ‘stay home’ if they don’t want police dogs to bite them

(Screenshot via Salt Lake City Police Department) Body camera footage shows a police K9 biting the leg of Jeffery Ryans in April.

State lawmakers are looking at codifying best practices for police dog teams after a Salt Lake City audit uncovered a pattern of abuse in the way its law enforcement agency has been using canines to catch suspects.

A legislative committee voted unanimously Tuesday to explore a bill on the issue, although one state senator made clear he has little patience for complaints about police dogs.

“I don’t have a lot of sympathy,” Sen. Don Ipson told his colleagues on the law enforcement and criminal justice committee. “We don’t want to harm the public. But if they don’t want to get bit, stay home.”

Officials should make sure police dogs aren’t biting people prematurely, the St. George Republican said, but shouldn’t impose restrictive rules that might inhibit officers.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) In this Feb. 7, 2019, file photo, Sen. Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, talks about legislation in a Senate committee. On Tuesday, Ipson spoke about putting new restrictions on use of police dogs and said, "If [people] don't want to get bit, stay home."

Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan, said he agreed with Ipson and encouraged the committee to partner with law enforcement leaders in the state so police agencies don’t feel the Legislature is “driving something down their throat." Potter won’t be in the Legislature next year after losing his June 30 Republican primary.

Another Republican committee member cautioned against knee-jerk lawmaking and advised stepping back, letting the dust settle and taking time to consider new rules.

“If it can’t happen this year, then it can happen next year,” first-term Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, said.

But others on the committee directed attention back to the situation that sparked the debate — when a Salt Lake City police officer commanded his police dog to bite a Black man who was kneeling with his hands raised. The officer was charged with a felony after The Salt Lake Tribune published bodycam footage of the arrest.

“For someone to be laying on the ground and complying and have a dog go after them ... I think was inappropriate,” said Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, who argued that the proposed legislation should delve into the proper use of police canines. Hollins is the only Black member in the Utah Legislature.

And Sen. Daniel Thatcher said the bill’s construction doesn’t have to take very long; lawmakers just need to codify the best practices that are already in place, he said. Thatcher also noted that canine handlers, not their dogs, are often the ones at fault in cases of excessive force.

“The handler is the person that needs the additional training,” the West Valley Republican said. “Not the canine.”

The Alliance for a Better Utah released a statement condemning Ipson’s remarks about police dogs, saying the Legislature’s job is to develop policies that protect Utahn and end patterns of law enforcement abuse.

“It is absolutely appalling that Sen. Ipson would make such a terrible statement in support of police violence,” Lauren Simpson, the alliance’s policy director, said in the statement. “Suggesting that people should just ‘stay home’ if they don’t want to experience police brutality is truly one of the more obscene things to be uttered recently by a sitting lawmaker in Utah.”

Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, Ipson apologized for misspeaking by saying Utahns should stay home if they want to avoid being bitten by police dogs, but he stood behind his underlying argument — which is that committing crimes puts people at risk of encounters with law enforcement.

“I’m 73 years old. I’ve never been threatened by a K-9 dog,” he said. “If you don’t want to have a confrontation with a police officer or a K-9 dog ... you don’t break the law."

Ipson said he has watched the bodycam footage of Salt Lake City Officer Nickolas Pearce ordering his dog to bite 36-year-old Jeffery Ryans in April and called it “unfortunate.” Ryans’ lawyers say their client has suffered nerve and tendon damage and infections and has difficulty walking.

But Ipson argued that police dogs are an important law enforcement tool that should remain available to officers. Additional training might be necessary to help officers use police dogs properly, the senator said, but he added that Utah agencies have access to excellent instruction and K-9 experts.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Lee Perry, a retired police officer who co-chairs the legislative panel, said one of the premier experts on law enforcement canines works with Utah’s police training and standards division and could assist state lawmakers in crafting guidelines to prevent misconduct.

Minnesota, Florida and South Dakota are among the states with laws on the certification of police dogs, a policy analyst explained to the committee.

Several months ago, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall suspended the use of police dogs after The Salt Lake Tribune published video footage of a Black man being bit, even though he was complying with officers.

A subsequent review of situations in which police dogs had bit someone documented a “pattern of abuse of power,” the mayor later said, and the city flagged 18 cases to the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office to be screened for criminal charges. The office’s prosecutors have also requested information from all other police canine units in the Salt Lake Valley about injuries caused by their dogs.

Earlier this month, the Salt Lake City police released footage of 19 questionable cases in which police dogs bit suspects.

Many of the videos involved suspects complying with officers or hiding while officers are attempting to find and arrest them. Nine of the cases are from this year, while five are from 2019, four are from 2018 and one is from 2016.

The K-9 Apprehension Program, and the four dual-purpose dogs associated with it, will remain suspended indefinitely, the department said after releasing the footage. Police Chief Mike Brown has placed six officers on paid administrative leave.

The president of Salt Lake City’s police union on Tuesday defended the actions of officers shown in the 19 videos, writing that many of the suspects were intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.

“It was these individual’s choice to not follow commands of the officers, and because of their actions, they alone provoked the K9 action,” Steven Winters, the union president, wrote on Facebook. "It is the police officer’s responsibility to control the situation and restore peace in the community. We stand by our K9 officers and the actions they took, based off their training and current policies.