Mauling by police dog puts Lakewood K-9 tactics in spotlight

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by LINDA BYRON / KING 5 News

KREM.com

Posted on February 26, 2013 at 8:47 AM

Updated Saturday, Nov 23 at 5:15 AM

Noel Saldana was brutally mauled by a Lakewood Police dog on the night of June 27, 2010, suffering wounds so severe that he was confined to a hospital for 11 days. Saldana said that doctors told him they might need to amputate his left leg.

Saldana said the K-9's attack was completely unexpected, as he said he complied with a police officer's order to get on the ground.

"It was a boom, it was so fast, I never been attacked by a dog," said Saldana. "The noise was like a chewing, ripping... devastating."

The dog that attacked Saldana was Astor, handled by Lakewood Officer James Syler. Syler's side of the story differs from Saldana's. According to Syler’s police report, he gave a loud verbal warning saying, “Police Department, this area is being searched by a police dog. If there is anyone in this area come out and identify yourself or the dog will find you and he will bite you.” 

Syler said Saldana was trying to hide under bushes and Astor was appropriately used to find him. Saldana's injuries were the result of trying to fight off the dog, Syler said.

Saldana was never charged with a crime. Permanently disabled by Astor's bites, he is now suing the City of Lakewood and Syler.

The incident involving Saldana raises questions about how Lakewood Police enforce guidelines governing the use of K-9s, and it highlights how police dogs are every bit as capable of causing serious injury as the firearms, tasers and batons carried by officers.

What brought Syler and Saldana into contact was Saldana's attempt to enter the home of his estranged wife. Saldana, his wife later said, tried to push his way into the house.

"I say, you know, 'I want to be with you, I want to be with the kids.' She tells me another time to leave the house, two, three times, so I leave," Saldana said.

His wife called the police after he left on foot. Saldana said he was walking to his sister's house located nearby.

"I had no idea they were looking for me, I had no idea they were in the area," Saldana said.

When Syler located Saldana, he said Saldana tried to hide and ignored commends to show himself and surrender. The bushes Syler said Saldana was hiding under have since been trimmed, but a close inspection shows the plants are pressed against a fence  -- making it very difficult for someone to hide under them.

When Astor located Saldana, the dog was able to maul him long enough to cause significant wounds before Syler ordered the animal to cease.

"He told repeatedly, maybe two or three times to the dog, 'Get him boy, get him boy, get him boy,' while the dog was chewing on the leg," Saldana said.

An internal review conducted by Lakewood PD concluded that Syler's use of Astor was effective and within departmental policy.

Saldana is suing Lakewood PD for negligence and Syler for assault and excessive use of force.

His attorney, Steven Reich, said other cases of alleged excessive force involving Syler and Astor have come to light since Saldana's suit was filed. 

"Pattern and history of at least four people that we know of suffering very serious and permanent maiming injuries. And I don't know how many more people need to go through this before that dog is pulled out," Reich said.

KING 5 had a lot of questions for Lakewood Police, but they woudn't grant an interview. The department did provide a short written statement that says they track the use of force related to their K-9s and that the department follows best practices.              

Saldana's case is scheduled to go to trial in federal court next month. Stewart Estes, the Seattle attorney representing the City of Lakewood and Officer Syler, denies that excessive force was used against Saldana. In court filings related to Saldana's suit, Estes said Saldana had assaulted his wife and knew that she was calling police when he left her residence.

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