Responding to abuses, Utah police dogs and their handlers will be required to get training

Legislation comes after a Salt Lake City audit uncovered inappropriate actions by its K-9 department.

(Screenshot of West Valley City police video) Police body camera footage shows an interaction between a suspect and a K-9 on May 29, 2020.

Utah lawmakers on Wednesday passed a bill that will require new training for police dogs and their handlers.

SB38 mandates that every police canine and the officer who handles that dog be certified and annually recertified. The legislation 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 bill has sailed through the Legislature. Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, has said there’s been no opposition to his bill and that law enforcement groups were in favor.

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

It now goes to Gov. Spencer Cox for his signature or veto.

After the bodycam video was published, the Salt Lake City Police Department indefinitely suspended its K-9 program, and the Salt Lake County District Attorney is reviewing cases for criminal charges.

The officer in the video, Nickolas Pearce, was later charged with a felony. And another Salt Lake City officer, D. Clawson, was recently found to have used “excessive force” when he ordered his police dog to bite a 14-year-old boy.

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.

The 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) will be responsible for establishing and maintaining new standards for training, certification and recertification.

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