Utah Senate approves bill requiring certification for K-9 police dogs

The bill comes after a Salt Lake City audit uncovered a pattern of abuse.

(Screenshot via Salt Lake City Police Department/YouTube) Police body camera footage shows an interaction between a suspect and a K-9 on May 17, 2020. The Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed a bill requiring training certification and annual renewal for using K-9 in Utah law enforcement.

Utah lawmakers are expected to consider dozens of police reform bills this session, and the Senate passed the first on Tuesday with a unanimous vote in favor of creating new training requirements for police dogs.

The move to mandate that every canine and its handler be certified and annually recertified in the state comes after The Salt Lake Tribune published bodycam footage of a Salt Lake City arrest in which an officer commanded his police dog to bite a Black man who was kneeling with his hands raised. The officer, Nickolas Pearce, was later charged with a felony, and the city has since suspended the K-9 Apprehension Program indefinitely.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City and the bill’s sponsor, said Tuesday that there was no opposition to the bill that he was aware of — perhaps reflected in the lack of the debate on the Senate floor — and that law enforcement groups were in favor of it.

“It does raise the bar on accountability and responsibility, which is something we’ve been working very hard,” he said in introducing the bill.

After releasing footage in September of 18 questionable cases in which police dogs bit suspects — many of which showed suspects complying with officers or hiding from them — a Salt Lake City review found a pattern of abuse in the way the law enforcement agency has been using canines to catch suspects.

The state’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee then voted unanimously to explore ways to address the issue in October, and one senator made headlines for his comments that people who don’t want to be bit by a police dog should “stay home.”

Sen. Don Ipson later apologized but stood behind his underlying argument that committing crimes puts people at risk of encounters with law enforcement.

In addition to creating new training requirements, SB38 also states that a state, county or municipality is not liable for damages for an injury caused by a dog as long as the canine and its law enforcement handler have been trained, the government body has a written policy on the appropriate use of dogs and the dog’s actions did not violate that policy.

The Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) would be responsible, under the bill, for establishing and maintaining new standards for training, certification and recertification.

The bill now moves to the House for further consideration.