Southern Utah lawmaker criticized for comments during police K-9 training discussion

Paige, Hurricane City Police Department's inaugural K-9, poses on the grass, date and location unspecified | Photo courtesy of Hurricane Police Officer Ken Thompson, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — As a legislative interim committee met to explore ways to codify best practices for police canine officer training Tuesday, one Southern Utah lawmaker came under fire from a political watchdog group for comments made during the discussion.

Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, speaks on the Senate floor during the 2020 general session of the Utah Legislature, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 5, 2020 | File photo courtesy of the Utah Legislature, St. George News

As there is currently no law governing uniform training and certification of police canines and their handlers, the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee unanimously voted to open a bill to explore the issue.

While there was general support for the idea, some lawmakers said they wanted to make sure the new bill had the backing of law enforcement. Caution was also given against enacting a law in a knee-jerk reaction to recent events.

Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, said during the committee meeting that he felt any law governing the training and certification of police canines shouldn’t be restrictive.

“Let them keep doing their job,” he said. “We want to make sure they’re (the dogs) are not premature in their biting.”

It was Ipson’s following comment that drew the attention of Alliance for a Better Utah, a left-leaning political watchdog group.

“I don’t have a lot of sympathy,” Ipson said. “We don’t want to harm the public, but if they don’t want to get bit, stay home.”

A K-9 demonstration by Iron County Sheriff’s Office deputies during “Police Dogs and Hot Dogs in the Park” event sponsored by Friends of Iron County Police K9, Cedar City, Utah, June 24, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan, agreed with Ipson on law enforcement not being restricted, though added he wanted to make sure Utah’s police chiefs and sheriffs were supportive of codifying K-9 training and certification “so it doesn’t appear we’re driving something new down their throats. … We want this to be a positive for them and a positive for the public.”

Another GOP lawmaker, Rep. Mark Strong of Bluffdale, said legislators shouldn’t “rush to judgment” when considering a new law. If it needs to be done, then take the time to do it right, he said.

“Let’s make sure we have good legislation that’s not rushed,” Strong said. “If it can’t happen this year, then it can happen next year.”

Discussion over codifying a uniform standard of training and certification comes in the wake of a widely reported incident that occurred in April involving a Salt Lake City Police officer ordering a dog to bite 36-year-old Jeffrey Ryans, a Black man who was reportedly already complying with police. That officer has since been charged with a felony.

An audit was ordered by Salt Lake City’s mayor to look into the use of police dogs by the local law enforcement.

“For someone to be laying on the ground and complying and have a dog go after them … I think was inappropriate,” said Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, adding any proposed legislation should look at how K-9 officers are used. “We want to look at when this is used on individuals.”

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, who co-chairs the committee, noted that police agencies can go anywhere within and outside of the state for canine officer training and certification. But, he added Utah already has one of the country’s premier police canine training experts in Utah who serves with the Peace Officer Standards and Training, also known as POST.

Washington County Sheriff’s Deputy K-9 Vinnie with his handler, Sheriff’s Deputy Daniel Montgomery, St. George, Utah, July 21, 2020 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

POST is the agency that the St. George Police Department send sends its K-9 officers and handlers to for certification, St. George Police Officer Tiffany Atkin told St. George News Wednesday.

Perry also said legislative staff are looking into other states that do have state certification for police canines, such as Minnesota, Florida and South Dakota, and are exploring what they may adapt to Utah’s own needs and best practices regarding the matter.

“It’s just wisdom that we have something in place so we don’t end up with a problem down the road,” Perry said.

Following Tuesday’s hearing, Alliance for a Better Utah issued a statement condemning Ipson’s comments.

“It is absolutely appalling that Sen. Ipson would make such a terrible statement in support of police violence,” Lauren Simpson, policy director for Alliance for a Better Utah, said in the statement. “As a lawmaker, his job is to set policy with the safety and security of Utahns in mind. Suggesting that people should just ‘stay home’ if they don’t want to experience police brutality is truly one of the more obscene things to be uttered recently by a sitting lawmaker in Utah.”

Simpson added lawmakers should be engaged in policies to keep people safe and deter police abuses.

A “suspect” is taken down during a K-9 demonstration at “Police Dogs and Hot Dogs in the Park” event sponsored by Friends of Iron County Police K9, Cedar City, Utah, June 24, 2019 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“Jeffery Ryans should never have been bitten by a police dog,” she said. “The Legislature cannot change that, but they have a responsibility to ensure that the pattern of abuse ends.”

While Ipson declined to comment on the matter to St. George News, he had already spoken to The Salt Lake Tribune and KUTV Tuesday and apologized for misspeaking, yet stood by what he originally meant to convey.

“I’m 73 years old. I’ve never been threatened by a K-9 dog,” Ipson told KUTV. “If you don’t want to have a confrontation with a police officer or a K-9 dog … you don’t break the law.”

Ipson said he had seen the body camera footage depicting the Salt Lake Police officer using the dog on Ryans, and called the situation “unfortunate,” according to the Tribune. However, he added that police K-9s are an important tool used by law enforcement.

People are innocent until proven guilty, Ipson told KUTV, yet also said people sometimes need to be restrained and apprehended for their actions.

While Ipson voted in favor of a bill exploring regulation governing police K-9 use, he also told KUTV that he supports the K-9 officers and their handlers, and the police overall.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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