Utah lawmakers consider K9 training restrictions after audit

SOPHIA EPPOLITO and LINDSAY WHITEHURST
·3 min read
FILE - Jeffery Ryans points at his ankle as he discusses his encounter with Salt Lake City police at his attorney's office on Aug. 5, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City's police dog apprehension program will remain suspended indefinitely, the police chief announced, after an officer ordered a dog to attack Ryans, who had put his hands in the air. Weeks after body camera footage of an officer directing a dog to attack Ryans came to light, the department ordered an internal affairs audit of its K9 apprehension program, Chief Mike Brown told reporters Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, File)

Racial Injustice Utah

FILE - Jeffery Ryans points at his ankle as he discusses his encounter with Salt Lake City police at his attorney's office on Aug. 5, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City's police dog apprehension program will remain suspended indefinitely, the police chief announced, after an officer ordered a dog to attack Ryans, who had put his hands in the air. Weeks after body camera footage of an officer directing a dog to attack Ryans came to light, the department ordered an internal affairs audit of its K9 apprehension program, Chief Mike Brown told reporters Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Months after a Black man was bit in the leg by a police dog in his own backyard, Utah lawmakers are now considering adding further training requirements for dogs and their handlers.

At an interim committee hearing on Tuesday, legislators unanimously approved a bill that would require annual certification for Utah police dogs and their handlers. The bill would also amend provisions so that an officer cannot be held liable for a dog's actions if the animal goes against the officer's commands.

“The idea of holding an officer liable for something that they did not have control over is concerning to me,” bill sponsor Republican Sen. Daniel Thatcher said during the virtual meeting. “At the same time what brought this attention to this issue was not something that the dog did. It was a command given by the handler.”

The proposed bill comes after body camera footage was released this summer of a Salt Lake City police officer directing a dog to attack Jeffery Ryans, who had his hands in the air. About a month later, the police department released body camera footage of 18 additional dog bite incidents following an internal audit.

Chief Mike Brown said the department identified 34 bite cases over the past four years but released footage from 19 of them, including video of Ryans’ arrest, that “needed further review.” The K9 officer who allegedly ordered his dog to bite Ryans was charged with aggravated assault. He has not yet spoken publicly about the incident.

Many of the videos show officers ordering police dogs to bite suspects who are either complying with police or are already incapacitated. Similar to Ryans, several suspects can be heard crying out in pain as officers encourage their dogs and say “good boy.”

Mayor Erin Mendenhall called the footage upsetting. But she said the department’s transparency in this issue is critical.

Ann Marie Schiavone, an animal law scholar at Duquesne University, said some of the Salt Lake City videos were problematic because they involved suspects who were not armed and already had their hands up. She said that in those cases police dogs are being used as a crutch and can end up further escalating the encounter.

“When someone is bitten, their human reaction is not necessarily to comply with what someone is yelling at them,” Schiavone said. “They’re going to be trying to escape the pain or fight back. Both of those things just escalated violence rather than deescalating the situation.”

Similar questions are being raised about the use of police dogs in other U.S. cities. Thousands of people are bitten every year by the animals, causing serious and occasionally even fatal injuries, according to a yearlong investigation by the nonprofit criminal-justice news organization The Marshall Project, along with the outlets AL.com, IndyStar and the Invisible Institute.

Police dogs used in arrests are bred and trained to have a bite strong enough to punch through sheet metal. The investigation looked at cities across the country and found dogs were frequently used on people suspected of nonviolent, minor crimes or during mental health checks. Police officers sometimes can’t control the dogs, worsening injuries, and there’s often little accountability or compensation for bite victims, it found.

All 34 Salt Lake City cases have been referred to the district attorney’s office for further investigation. The head prosecutor’s office is also gathering information about K9 units across Salt Lake County.

The department’s police dog apprehension program and the four dogs associated with it remain suspended indefinitely. Six officers involved in the cases have also been placed on administrative leave. They were not identified.

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Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.