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FOX 13 Investigates: Some Utah police dogs bite even when suspects are surrendering

Posted at 9:46 PM, Jun 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-07 16:44:52-04

The video shows the 14-year-old boy standing on the counter, his hands up.

A Salt Lake City police officer can be heard telling a K-9 named Jager to “Hit, hit, hit.” That’s the command for the dog to bite.

Officers pulled the boy to the ground. Then Jager started biting the boy on his legs and groin.

“Stop fighting the dog!” one officer yells as the teen screams.

The 14-year-old, in June of last year, broke into a closed Burger King. An attorney representing the boy’s family, Pete Sorensen, acknowledges the teen was somewhere he should not have been, but says the police response went too far.

“Near as his family could tell,” Sorensen said, “he had over 37 puncture wounds.”

It’s not an isolated case. An investigation by FOX 13 and The Salt Lake Tribune examined 39 body camera videos depicting K-9 bites from the three largest police departments in Salt Lake County: Unified Police Department, West Valley City and Salt Lake City.

WATCH: West Valley City PD releases body cam videos, reports on K-9 injuries for 2018-20

In eight of those videos, suspects had their hands up or were face down when the dog attacked.

In seven cases, a K-9 continued to bite even after the suspects were in handcuffs.

“Well, it depends on what your definition of complying is,” said Joe McBride, president of the Salt Lake City Police Association — the city’s police union.

He said just because someone’s hands are up or the person is lying on the ground doesn’t mean he or she is not a threat.

“If they’re in a situation where they can still access a weapon,” McBride said, “or they can still flee or they’re in a vehicle or they can do something that puts the officer in jeopardy. They’re not necessarily compliant.”

FOX 13 investigative reporter Nate Carlisle joins Max Roth below to go in-depth about police dogs unnecessarily biting suspects.

In-Depth: Behind the rise of unnecessary K-9 attacks

The police association has criticized the two felony assault charges filed against Salt Lake City K-9 handler Nickolas Pearce. In April of 2020, Pearce ordered a dog named Tuco to bite a man, Jeffrey Ryans, who was in a crouch, had his hands up and appeared to be complying with police.

Ryans is Black. His lawyer has said he believes Pearce’s command to the dog was racially motivated. Pearce, according to The Salt Lake Tribune, told a review board he saw Ryans’ hand grasping a fence and thought he was going to pull himself up.

After Ryans’ attorney released the bodycam video to reporters, Salt Lake City halted the use of K-9s to apprehend suspects.

In the second episode involving Pearce, a woman shut off the car she was in, tossed the keys and put her hands out the window. She did not follow orders to exit the car.

Prosecutors say that’s when Pearce lifted Tuco up to bite the woman. In a recent Facebook post, the police association said Pearce used an acceptable technique to have a K-9 subdue and remove a suspect from a spot in which officers may not safely be able to enter.

READ: Audit of SLCPD K-9 program reveals 18 cases that warrant further investigation

Anu Asnaani, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah who studies fear-based disorders, said some people may panic when confronted with a K-9 and not respond to police commands. And dog bites can leave psychological trauma.

“I’ll often say to folks,” Asnaani said, “who regret, for instance, that they were getting bitten by a dog and they tried to fight the dog off and it made it worse, a lot of the work that I do is talk about, ‘What else was your other option? You thought you were going to die.’”

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill is reviewing 106 dog bite cases from the last four years to determine whether the handlers committed any crimes. The review started last year after Gill learned police departments weren’t forwarding K-9 bites to his office like other use-of-force cases.

"And that is something that should have happened in a timely fashion,” Gill said, “but now we have to go back and recreate that investigative effort.”

Gill said prosecutors have seen some bites that crossed the line, but he can’t prosecute the officers because those bites amounted to misdemeanors and the statutes of limitations has expired.

WATCH: SLCPD releases videos of K-9 bites under DA investigation

McBride worked as a K-9 handler earlier in his career. He says Gill’s review is hurting police morale and may discourage departments from using K-9s when needed.

“A lot of time when the dog is barking, we will get surrenders,” McBride said. “They hear that dog barking and they’re like, ‘Nope, I’m done.’”

“That in and of itself has prevented countless uses of force,” he added.

Taxpayers have already dealt with the consequences of errant K-9 bites.

According to more records obtained by FOX 13 and The Tribune, Unified Police has received eight claims of unwarranted dog bites over nine years. UPD has paid $134,794 to settle them.

Salt Lake City paid nearly $40,000 to a man seriously hurt by a K-9 who was charged with resisting officers while the dog was biting him. Those charges were eventually dropped.

As he prepared to file a lawsuit on behalf of the 14-year-old, Sorensen said he’d like to see the police officers in the case charged with crimes.

“The family has been disturbed greatly by this,” Sorensen said, “and they don’t like the idea that cops can somewhat shoot first and ask questions later when it comes to inflicting force with the use of a dog.”

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