SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers took a first step Tuesday toward setting statewide standards for police dog programs, a move that comes after Salt Lake City is reviewing cases of several K-9 handlers who allegedly commanded dogs to bite suspects even though they appeared to comply.
The legislative law enforcement panel voted unanimously to consider such a measure.
K-9 training in Utah’s police academy is seen as a national model, and several states have written laws based on the program, Chairman Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, told colleagues on the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee.
But he said some Utah police agencies continue to obtain the training out of state, and Utah hasn’t gone so far as to codify best practices.
“So if somebody wanted to fudge the system right now, they could,” he said. “We want to say, ‘Hey, look, we just need to make sure you’re trained.'”
Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, said he’s not sympathetic toward those bit during apprehension.
“We want to be sure that they’re not premature in their biting, but I don’t have a lot of sympathy,” he said. “We don’t want to harm the public, but if they don’t want to get bit, stay home.”
Perry, a retired lieutenant with the Utah Highway Patrol, said he has spoken with police chiefs and they support the effort.
Other states like Minnesota, South Dakota and Washington have codified training requirements for police dogs, with some stipulating that police agencies aren’t liable for missteps like mistaken searches, said legislative analyst John Feinauer.
Salt Lake City’s program came under scrutiny earlier this year after body camera video showed a Black man, Jeffery Ryans, kneeling in his yard with his hands in the air as an officer deployed a police dog. Attorneys for Ryans, 36, notified the city in a letter of his intent to sue, saying he has long-term injuries including nerve and tendon damage.
Officer Nickolas John Pearce, who released his dog, Tuco, on Ryans, is due in court next week for his first appearance on charge of aggravated assault, a second-degree felony. His attorneys did not immediately return messages seeking comment Tuesday.
The city suspended its program indefinitely and has placed six officers on administrative leave as prosecutors comb through body camera footage and weigh criminal charges for other handlers. In an internal review, the department flagged 19 cases for review by the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.
We don’t want to harm the public, but if they don’t want to get bit, stay home.
–Don Ipson, R-St. George
But prosecutors in the office are examining even more cases — 34 total — wherein a K-9 was used in an arrest in Salt Lake City. They are similarly looking at footage from seven other law enforcement agencies in the county.
On Tuesday, Rep. Sandra Hollins said while the dogs are a tool for law enforcers, she believes the panel should examine the when the dogs are used and which circumstances make it appropriate to do so.
“For someone to be laying on the ground and complying … and have a dog go after them, or one of the canines go after them, I think was inappropriate,” said Hollins, D-Salt Lake City.
Rep. Mark Strong, cautioned against what he said could be a rush to judgment.
“Let’s take our time,” the Bluffdale Republican said.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, disagreed.
“If we already have established — through research and practice — the best way to handle this, then I don’t think it’s necessarily rushing to turn around and say, if you’re going to run this program, you should run it based on evidence and best practices,” Thatcher said.
Salt Lake City police detective Michael Ruff said the agency has gone through Utah’s own police academy for K-9 training and is supportive of the legislative effort.
“If there’s a way we can improve our department, we’ll do that,” he said.
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Utah lawmakers take early step toward statewide standards for police dog programs /p>