SALT LAKE CITY — Eighteen Salt Lake police dog bite incidents from the last two years will be referred to criminal prosecutors for further investigation as the department’s K-9 program remains suspended indefinitely, city officials announced Friday.
Investigators within the Salt Lake City Police Department have gone through all police dog bite incidents dating back to 2018 — a total of 27 incidents — and plan to continue investigating dog bites at least as far back as 2016, Chief Mike Brown said Friday.
"I have concerns when force may have been used inappropriately," Brown said. "We will build a better department, a better city, and a better community."
In 2020, there have been 11 police dog bites, and nine are being referred to the Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill’s office for further criminal investigation, Brown said. In 2019, there were 10 bites, and five are being referred to Gill’s office. There were six dog bites in 2018 and four are being referred, Brown added.
The officers involved in those incidents have been placed on administrative leave, per the department’s policy, Brown said. He did not say exactly how many officers have been placed on leave.
After the news conference, Gill issued his own statement on the investigations. Gill said Friday's announcement "is a vital step toward restoring public faith in law enforcement."
"We will review all materials provided to our office in connection with our records request and we will act as appropriate and necessary to fulfill and perform our statutory duties consistent with the law," he said. "This means carefully reviewing and investigating allegations of criminal conduct consistent with our role as public prosecutors. The DA Office will file charges on any case that rise to the level of criminal activity.
"I want to thank Mayor (Erin) Mendenhall and Chief Brown for their efforts to be transparent and to take affirmative steps in the service of justice.”
The Friday announcement is the result of an internal audit conducted by the department in the wake of an April 24 incident involving Jeffery Ryans, a Black man who alleges he was attacked by a Salt Lake police dog even though he was kneeling to the ground and had his hands up.
The K-9 handler in Ryans' case has already been charged by Gill’s office.
Salt Lake police officer Nickolas John Pearce, 39, of Herriman, was charged Sept. 16 in 3rd District Court with aggravated assault, a second-degree felony, in connection with the incident.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall referred to a "culture of abuse" within the police department’s K-9 program.
"We’re here today to shine a light on this stain in our department," she said. "We are better than this. Our residents deserve better than this."
Mendenhall said she's committed to making sure such abuses of power never happen again in Salt Lake City.
Consistent with the police department’s new transparency policy, body camera footage from all 18 dog bites will be made available within 10 business days, Brown said.
Victims in any of the incidents should contact the district attorney’s office, Mendenhall added.
The Salt Lake City Council said in a statement released Friday afternoon that it supported Mendenhall in her effort to "carefully examine how the taxpayer policing resources are deployed and to make changes to the city’s approach."
“As a city we have seen our share of concerns about police procedures and practices that do not conform or comply with our shared values,” the council wrote in a statement. “We invite the police profession to be a very active part of building a policing system that values human life, that respects differences and that does not tolerate discrimination, or inappropriate use of force, and that is fair and just for every individual.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah called the police department audit a good first step.
"We call for not only a transparent and thorough investigation of these incidents, but also a deeper audit of more use of force instances by SLCPD and across other police agencies in Utah," the group said in a Friday news release. "We call for transparency into these identified incidents and accountability regarding specifics of these incidents, the individuals involved and aware of the possible misconduct, and the responses taken prior to today’s announcement."