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N.M. police K-9 subject of investigation, lawsuit after biting officers

K-9 Ayke, who is the subject of an internal affairs investigation after biting an officer at a crime scene, has bitten more people than any other dog with the department

Police dog's bites unleash concerns and a lawsuit

“However, folks need to understand Police K-9s are working dogs; they are not like your normal pet at home,” he wrote. “Our Handlers are responsible for the conduct of their K-9 and for preventing mishaps from occurring. As a precaution we always discourage folks from petting or interacting with our Police K-9s to avoid accidental injuries.”

Santa Fe Police Department via Facebook

By Phaedra Haywood
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE — Ayke was just a puppy when he started working at the Santa Fe Police Department in 2020. A new recruit, he’d been brought all the way from Germany to revive the department’s K-9 program, which had been dormant for about seven years.

Three years later, Ayke, a German shepherd, is one of four dogs used by the department to help apprehend suspects and locate narcotics and explosives — an effort police officials say has been helpful to officers’ work and saves them precious time.

But Ayke is a problem employee.

He has bitten more people than any other dog in the department’s K-9 unit and is the subject of an internal affairs investigation into an attack this spring on one of the department’s own officers during a shooting incident that left one man dead and Officer Charles Ovalle wounded by a bullet that appears to have been fired by a fellow officer.

Ayke’s actions in the March 10 incident are under scrutiny. The dog’s handler, Officer Alejandro Arroyo, wrote in a report he released Ayke in hopes the dog would apprehend a fleeing suspect who had just exited one vehicle and was attempting to get into another.

The dog reached the vehicle a split second too late, Arroyo wrote, just as the suspect shut the door.

“PSD [Police Service Dog] Ayke then went around the vehicle where he encountered Officer Charles Ovalle and engaged him biting him in the right tricep area,” Arroyo wrote. “I called [Police Service Dog] Ayke several times but I believe because of the commotion PSD Ayke did not hear my commands.”

Neither the city of Santa Fe nor New Mexico State Police, which is investigating the incident, produced Ovalle’s report of what happened that day in response to written requests.

Police Chief Paul Joye declined a request for an interview. Deputy Chief Ben Valdez wrote in an email an administrative investigation into the incident is pending the completion of a criminal investigation.

A repeat offender

The March incident was not the first time Ayke has bit one of the department’s own officers — or didn’t respond when his handler tried to call him back under control.

The city is currently paying an outside attorney to defend against a lawsuit filed in 2023 by an officer who had to undergo plastic surgery after being attacked by Ayke during a 2022 training exercise.

Officer Damian Vigil claims in his lawsuit he was hesitant about participating in the demonstration but was pressured, intimidated and “ordered” to play the role of a suspect by his superiors.

He was given a protective jacket and pants to wear during the demonstration, Vigil’s complaint says, but nothing to protect his face and head.

He offered to retrieve his riot helmet, but was told that would be unnecessary because Ayke was trained not to bite above the shoulders. During the demonstration, Vigil was instructed to run from the dog, his lawsuit says. As he ran, Ayke bit his arm and dragged him to the ground.

The attack didn’t stop there, according to the lawsuit.

When Vigil was on his back, Arroyo attempted to call off Ayke. The dog did not respond and “instead viciously attacked Officer Vigil on the left side of his face,” the complaint alleges.

“Once Ayke attacked, Officer Arroyo again called him off ... and other officers present ran to assist Officer Vigil, who was now missing large portions of the left side of his face,” according to his complaint.

Vigil was flown to Colorado Springs for surgery.

Less than six months before that incident, in November 2021, Ayke had bitten a suspect on the head, according to a report.

Body camera footage of the incident shows the dog biting the man’s head as he screams and includes audio of an officer telling paramedics “the dog bit him on the head.”

Vigil’s lawsuit also names as a defendant K-9 Services, an Edgewood-based company which provided and trained Ayke and trained Arroyo.

K-9 Services founder Kevin Sheldahl declined to comment but his attorney has argued in court pleadings the company can’t be held responsible, in part because Ayke is a dog, “not a product,” whose nature is not fixed and can change in response to his environment.

Even if the dog were to be considered a product, K-9 Services has argued in a motion for summary judgement, Ayke is not “defective” because he’s doing what he’s been trained to do.

“That Ayke, who was trained to be dangerous, ended up being dangerous, cannot itself support a products liability claim,” the company’s attorney wrote in the motion.

Ayke has bitten eight people since coming to work for the department in the spring of 2020, according to the police department, including five civilians who were suspects in criminal investigations.

In contrast, Azar — a Belgian Malinois that specializes in finding explosives and joined the department at the same time as Ayke — has bitten one civilian suspect and one officer.

Nappo, another German shepherd, hasn’t bitten anyone since joining the force in 2021, according to bite histories provided by Valdez.

Zeus, also a German shepherd, has bitten one civilian suspect and one officer since joining the department in 2022.

Valdez confirmed Ayke remains on the job and department is confident he doesn’t represent a danger to the public “as long as ... the Handler and Ayke, are proficient in their ability and the Handler is utilizing Ayke within department policy,” Valdez wrote in an email.

Pros and cons of K-9s

Police consider K-9 dogs useful in large part because of their enhanced sense of smell.

“Half our K-9s are trained to detect elicit drugs and the other half can detect explosive materials,” Valdez wrote in an email. “Their detection ability reduces the amount of time it would take to search an area for these contrabands. Without the use of the K-9s, searches would likely take more man hours to complete and may result in contraband going undetected on scenes.”

In response to a question about potential drawbacks of using the dogs, Valdez responded: “Police K-9s are a valuable asset for our community, when properly utilized there are no cons.”

Some reports and all photographs involving biting incidents requested by The New Mexican have not been fulfilled by the city. Its records custodian deemed the request “broad and burdensome.”

Asked if the department was concerned about Ayke’s bite record, Valdez wrote: “With any use of force or injury, we document the incident and it undergoes a review by our Use of Force Committee to determine if it was within policy and if any corrective action for the Handler is necessary.”

The police department purchased each of the animals for about $4,400 and paid $2,200 for their initial certification course, according to Valdez. The department spends about $4,800 per year on dog food for the dogs and another $2,000 on veterinarian care.

Department policy allows the dogs to search for explosives, articles of evidence, missing persons or suspects in buildings or open spaces. Dogs also conduct “narcotic sniffs” in such spaces.

However, the dogs cannot be used to search or “sniff” a person for controlled substances, according to the policy.

When using the dogs to search for suspects in buildings or open spaces, the policy requires the handler to announce: “Santa Fe Police K-9 Unit, speak to me now or the dog will be released!”

The policy requires every bite be documented and dogs be quarantined for 10 days following each bite.

The department requires K-9 units complete at least 320 hours of training per year and requires handlers undergo physical standards and psychological well-being testing.

However, the exact nature of the training the animals must undergo isn’t specified in the policy.

The animals are certified by the National Police Canine Association, an Arizona-based nonprofit that specializes in training K-9 teams.

Police dogs are responsible for sending thousands of Americans to emergency rooms each year, but there are no national standards for police dog training, according to a 2020 report from the Marshall Project — a nonprofit which covers the criminal justice system.

There is “little accountability or compensation for many bite victims,” according to the report, which the Marshall Project published after year-long investigation into the use of police dogs across the country.

“Excessive force lawsuits over dog bites are difficult to win,” the Marshall Project reported. “Police officers are often shielded from liability, and federal civil rights laws don’t typically cover bystanders who are bitten by mistake.”

The city of Clovis agreed in 2021 to pay about $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of a man who was injured by a police dog after his mother called police to ask for help with her son because she worried he was suicidal, according to attorney Matt Coyte and reports from the time.

Daniel Lucero was unarmed and visible to officers through a glass door, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, but officers released a K-9 into his home and the dog tore into Lucero’s calf, exposing muscle and tendons through a gaping wound which required transportation to a Texas hospital for treatment.

“There are legitimate uses” for K-9 units, Coyte said, but the key is to use them judiciously.

“If you don’t use them cautiously, then you get terrible outcomes like my client suffered,” Coyte said.

Residents have no reason to fear Ayke or any of the K-9s used by the department, Valdez wrote in an email.

“However, folks need to understand Police K-9s are working dogs; they are not like your normal pet at home,” he wrote. “Our Handlers are responsible for the conduct of their K-9 and for preventing mishaps from occurring. As a precaution we always discourage folks from petting or interacting with our Police K-9s to avoid accidental injuries.”

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