• Fri. Jan 14th, 2022

Lawsuit against Visalia police alleges excessive force after K-9 was used on mentally ill man

ByJanice K. Merrill

Dec 1, 2021
VISALIA, Calif. (KFSN) – “I felt desperate because there was nothing I could do for him except stand there and watch him get bitten by a dog,” said Yajaida Keys of Visalia.

Keys, surrounded by family and friends, explained why she filed an excessive force and civil rights complaint on Tuesday against the Visalia Police Department, Police Chief Jason Salazar, Lt. Ron Epp, the officer Austin Veteto, Officer Sean Schiebelhut and Officer Aaron Stocker.

It was October 20, 2020 when Keys called the police to take his 21-year-old son Jordan Gutierrez to the hospital.

She said she told the dispatcher he was unarmed, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was having an episode.

She said she made three similar calls to the police for help before this incident.

“They would come out, they wouldn’t even handcuff him. They would get him in the police car, he would get in, they would escort him to the hospital,” Keys said.

But this time, she said the first officer arrived with his taser in hand. He said he held it for his own protection.

A second officer arrived, an officer Keys said he recognized on one of his previous calls.

A third officer then arrived with his K-9.

According to the lawsuit, two officers held Gutierrez’s arms behind his back as the K-9 officer ordered his dog to bite Gutierrez.

Gutierrez was bitten on the face and neck.

Attorney representing Keys and Gutierrez, James DeSimone, claims the officers used excessive force and violated Gutierrez’s civil rights.

“It was unnecessary. It was unreasonable. For the police to use that type of force, they have to face a type of violent threat and there was none that day,” DeSimone said.

Gutierrez was arrested for resisting an officer. His criminal case is still ongoing.

Sergeant Mike Short of the Visalia Police Department said the department was unable to comment on the incident as the criminal case is ongoing and due to new litigation pending.

Overall, Short said officers take 40 hours of crisis intervention training from mental health partners in Tulare County.

Sgt. Short did not want to say whether the officers named in the lawsuit had taken the training, calling it a personnel issue.

Keys filed a formal complaint with the department days after the bite, but his lawyer said his complaint was dismissed and, instead, she was charged with obstructing officers at the scene.

DeSimone says Keys performed community service for this.

The lawsuit seeks damages for the mental and physical injuries suffered by Gutierrez, the emotional distress Keys endured and calls for more training for the police officers in Visalia.

“We call on the town of Visalia, its police department to investigate these officers and take appropriate corrective action,” DeSimone said.

This is the second lawsuit against the Visalia Police Department this year, alleging excessive force with a K-9 against people with mental illness.

DeSimone said he submitted evidence in this and the previous case to the California Attorney General’s office to request an investigation into the Visalia Police Department and their use of police K-9s.

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