Justice and Due Process

Utah’s K-9 Units Must Get More Training, But It Won’t Completely Solve the Problem

Landon Hooley is a policy intern at Libertas Institute and a student at Brigham Young University. 

A Salt Lake City police officer ordered his dog to maul a suspect while he lay face down on the ground. K-9 units have been under scrutiny ever since the incident in August 2019. Shockingly, it was only one of several instances where K-9 units were ordered by their handlers to attack compliant subjects who were lying down.

The disturbing pattern of K-9 units attacking subjects while they were surrendering or incapacitated on the ground prompted investigations into the protocol surrounding K-9 units and their history. Libertas Institute has been invested in transparency and accountability for police dogs and their handlers ever since. 

In late 2020, Salt Lake police identified 19 incidents of potential misuse of force that were to be reviewed by the district attorney who, in turn, requested to view all 34 cases involving the use of force from a K-9 unit from the previous four years.

KUTV formed summaries of all 19 publicly released videos under investigation, one of which has led to felony charges of aggravated assault being filed against an SLC police officer in May 2021.

These incidents prompted widespread criticism and left questions of whether the dogs and their handlers received sufficient training before their deployment and if they were necessary to apprehend suspects at all.

In response to the controversy, Senator Daniel Thatcher sponsored Senate Bill 38 requiring more comprehensive training for K-9 units. The Libertas-supported bill passed towards the end of the 2021 legislative session and was signed into law in March. 

The bill requires the executive branch’s Office of Administrative Rules to create standards for the “training, certification, and recertification” of the dogs and their handlers. Now, K-9 units will need to be recertified annually to ensure proper training standards are upheld. 

While questions remain regarding the efficacy of police dogs, their popularity in the public eye will likely assure their continued use. Just ask the southern Utah group trying to give a dozen K-9 units bulletproof vests and Washington County’s “K-9 with a million likes.”

Even with the recent changes in legislation, the use of K-9 units in the future is still controversial, and more work needs to be done. New standards for training may not directly translate to a reduction of their misuse in the field. 

The unresolved issues concerning what constitutes appropriate use of K-9 units need to be addressed by lawmakers to avoid additional tragedy.