King County has settled a lawsuit stemming from a 2016 Sheriff’s Office K-9 incident that left Urbano Velazquez’s arm severely damaged.
The settlement for $100,000 was reached after Velazquez sued the county and specific deputies late last year for $2 million. However, the courts struck down several claims, but allowed the lawsuit to continue against the county for claims of inadequate training and K-9 officer Deputy Devon Stratton for use of excessive force.
The settlement states that Velazquez was to withdraw the lawsuit, which he did, in exchange for $100,000, which a county records employee stated has been paid.
In the early morning of May 20, 2016, deputies responded to a report of domestic violence at a house northeast of Enumclaw. A police report states that Velazquez had been drinking alcohol when he allegedly grabbed his wife’s hair.
His wife made the call to 911 on speaker phone so Velazquez could hear it, court documents state, and he left before hiding in a crawl space under the house. Dispatchers told the deputies that Velazquez was unarmed, a detail that wasn’t clear in court filings discovered during previous reporting by this publication.
Stratton arrived on the scene and used his dog, Luky, to track Velazquez to a crawl space beneath the house.
The crawl space was dark and had low-hanging pipes and insulation blocking the deputies’ view. The court documents state the deputies decided it was unsafe for either of them to enter the cramped area, and Stratton sent Luky into the crawl space on a 33-foot leash.
What happened in that crawl space is contentious. Stratton claimed that his conduct, and Luky’s actions, were in line with department training. Velazquez said he had called out that he was surrendering, and was moving toward the entrance when he was bitten by the dog. Stratton said he received no response from Velazquez.
After entering the crawl space, Luky found Velazquez and bit his arm. Court documents state it is unclear whether Velazquez was dragged out by the arm or not, but he was likely caught on a pipe at one point, which could have added to his injuries.
Velazquez’s arm was severely damaged. Cuts running down to the bone in several locations. His lawyer said his arm was so mangled that Velazquez permanently lost some functionality and couldn’t find jobs as a farmworker — his previous career.
Internal documents from the King County Sheriff’s Office documents quoted in the court documents show that after reviewing the case, senior officers had serious concerns about the incident.
Major Noel Fryberger, a command duty officer, found that the K-9 should not have been deployed in the crawl space without consent from the owner, and that the injuries were unreasonable given the circumstances.
Another officer, Sgt. Mark Toner, said in the document that he also did not think they had the right to enter the crawl space, or inflict the severity of injuries that Velazquez sustained.
“I am confident that Deputy Stratton was working and acting within his training and experience,” Toner states. “I feel that these issues should be addressed unit-wide, rather than just with the one team.”
The court document states that it could imagine a reasonable jury finding that the sheriff’s office had not trained its K-9 officers on how to handle encounters with suspects in confined spaces. This could amount to deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of suspects.
The use of K-9 units has grown in recent years. In 2016, there were 324 tracks initiated, 332 in 2017 and 356 in 2018. And the number of internal use of force investigations involving K-9 units increased between 2013 and 2018.
However, other means of force, like tasers, are much more common. An Office of Law Enforcement Oversight report showed that during 2015 and 2016 combined, tasers were the most commonly used type of force, accounting for 54% of use of force incidents. Canines accounted for less than 5% of use of force instances.