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Are K-9 units a necessity for Utah’s police?

Argos, a police dog handled by Murray police officer Bryan Bybee, leaps for Braden Jensen during the “hardest-hitting K-9” competition, part of the Utah Peace Officers Association K-9 trials, at Galena Park in Draper on Saturday, June 27, 2020. The trials are three days of competition for police K-9 handlers and their dogs from various police, fire and search and rescue agencies throughout Utah.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

When local press released body camera footage of a violent K-9 incident from August 2019, law enforcement and the public alike were stunned. The footage shows a Salt Lake City policeman commanding his dog to bite and attack a compliant suspect during arrest. This has prompted the temporary suspension of the K-9 unit while the district attorney conducts investigations, causing the public to wonder: Can K-9 units be trusted?

However, it’s not just the K-9 units who are at fault — there are several other factors. Law enforcement personnel and training contribute to the unnecessary violence involved with K-9 use. A temporary suspension of the K-9 units won’t solve this problem, but changes in training, policy and reporting protocol will.

When K-9 dogs are trained, their instruction — which costs taxpayers between $8,000 to $10,000 per dog — includes capturing, tracking and apprehending suspects, along with some training on how to distinguish between a suspect or innocent person. This training takes place over the course of eight weeks, which U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups ruled as “insufficient and does not warrant the confidence the system places in it.”

Utah K-9 units work under a policy that states the dog can be used “if the canine handler reasonably believes that the individual has either committed, is committing or threatening to commit any serious offense.” This cover-all policy has led to over 30 recorded cases of violence between K-9 dogs and suspects in the state.

Some officers employ K-9 units to conduct drug searches during routine traffic stops. Other officers instruct K-9s to bite the hands, arms and legs of suspects who are sitting or lying on the ground per the officer’s instruction. In the released footage of the recent Salt Lake City incident, officers can be heard giving commands of “get him” or “hit him” to encourage the dog to attack, even when the suspect is not resisting or running away.

To ensure incidents like these don’t persist, changes in policy must be made. K-9 officers and dogs must be trained to only act when the suspect is not compliant, and failure to adhere to this policy must be disciplined. Furthermore, traffic stops to detect marijuana and other drugs must cease, especially since medically prescribed marijuana possession is now legal in Utah for thousands of patients.

Lack of proper reporting protocol in K-9 use has contributed to a decrease in trust in police investigations. Reporting laws and protocols mandate that officers report any “use of deadly force” up the chain of command. However, none of these K-9 incidents were properly reported to the police chief, district attorney, lieutenants or other commanding officers. As a result, the Salt Lake City police were unaware of the severity of the incidents until the footage was released. Since then, the police officers and dogs in the questioned cases have been suspended, and the district attorney’s office is screening cases for criminal charges.

K-9 units are useful in many investigations and apprehensions, but they also must be held accountable. And it’s up to the individual officers and departments to make sure that happens. Protocols for proper training, use, and reporting should be updated. This might include developing a longer, more thorough K-9 training program for officers and dogs. But without enforcement, they will be meaningless.

Commanding officers must be willing to suspend or discipline officers who continually and unnecessarily deploy their dogs onto compliant suspects. Until these cases are resolved and new protocols are enforced, K-9 units should remain inactive unless there is an absolute need for their service. Using dogs to ensure compliant suspects or to sniff out now-legal medicine is not enough reason to continue their use.

The state of Utah must regulate and restructure the use of K-9 teams to ensure the safety of all involved. In order to avoid further distrust in police action and force, this issue must be addressed in the safest way possible, even if it means long-term suspension. The safety of every individual — officer, suspect and bystander — must be priority.

Leah Schnyders is an intern at Libertas Institute and a current senior at Wheaton College.