Last month, police officer Nickolas Pearce was charged with second-degree felony aggravated assault and faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted. He is facing these charges for ordering his dog to attack 36-year-old Jeffrey Ryans in April of this year, even after Ryans was on the ground and getting handcuffed by another officer. Now, the city has released 19 videos flagged for review showcasing police violence from the K-9 unit.
As a result, SLCPD’s K-9 unit is suspended pending policy and procedure reviews by the city. Six officers have been placed on paid administrative leave. Steven Winters of the Salt Lake City Police Association called this move a “knee-jerk reaction” that is “very dangerous not just for the officer, but the public…” He further stated that this is “just one element that is now taken away from our arsenal of tools.” We are disturbed by this lack of concern for the safety and well-being of civilians, or any commitment to accountability. Instead, Winters and the Police Association want to continue using violent tools with no oversight or limitation.
Dogs respond to cues, rewards, and recognition. In the video of Ryans’ arrest, the officer is heard rewarding the dog for biting his leg. Pearce defended this choice, saying that dogs do not naturally want to bite people, so they need positive reinforcement. During the most recent released body footage, we learned that over 34 cases are under review, with 19 videos publically shared (trigger warning: police violence).
As the city participates in their “zero-budget” exercise to build the police department from the ground up, the city council and mayor should seriously consider eliminating the K-9 unit from the Salt Lake City Police Department. Attempts to reform this program will only end in more violence. City leaders, including Chief Brown and Mayor Mendenhall, were unaware of the attack on Ryans because the supervising lieutenant never reported it to upper management, as required by policy (this lieutenant has since retired with full benefits). If departments choose to ignore policies without consequence or accountability, how will any policy changes protect citizens? A full evaluation of the K-9 unit clearly shows a need for abolition, not reform.
According to SLCPD’s website, dogs in the SLC K-9 unit cost anywhere from $8,000-10,000 each. In addition to this initial cost, the dogs are given high-quality food and medical attention throughout their lives. And according to the police union contract with Salt Lake City, officers are rewarded with 10 hours of overtime pay each month for taking care of these dogs. Depending on their rank, that means the city is spending somewhere between $3,864-$6,072 per year, per officer with a dog, to maintain this unit. There are currently seven dogs in the SLC K-9 unit.
“Some officers jokingly refer to their K-9 partners as ‘probable cause on four legs.’ Others describe police dogs as blank permission slips because courts rarely question K-9 reliability.” As this op-ed by Darpana Sheth (senior attorney and director of Institute for Justice’s National Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse) and Daryl James (Institute for Justice writer) details, police are incentivized to use K-9’s in suspected drug traffic stops, since their cues can lead to a probable cause to search, which oftentimes leads to an increase of civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture, in sum, is theft: it is a practice where police can deem property “suspicious” and take it as “evidence”, regardless of whether the person is facing criminal charges. This can include any kind of asset, including cash. In 2017, Salt Lake Police officers stole $2.5 million worth of items
Further, dogs do not reliably smell drugs. The op-ed clarifies: “Studies suggest drug dogs are wrong up to 80% of the time, but unreliable noses are not the problem. The real issue is skewed incentives, especially with civil forfeiture.” Aside from the assets cops can seize from searches, police officers have an incentive to make arrests. Arrests give the police legitimacy, even when they are made under wrongful pretenses.
Police use of weaponizing animals is inhumane and cruel. Dogs do not want to bite humans: this desire is forced upon them by police trainers. Instead of re-enacting this program, the city should eliminate it entirely and allow the dogs to live violence-free lives. Not only would this save taxpayer money, it would also reduce the incentive for police to unjustly search people without criminal charges. Most importantly, the elimination of these weaponized animals would reduce the risk of trauma enacted on people being bit by reluctant dogs within a rogue police unit. End the K-9 unit now, and keep the people and animals in our city safe.