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

Jessica Harrington Image
Wednesday, December 1, 2021
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A Visalia woman says she called the police for help with her son who was going through a schizophrenic episode and it ended with him being bit by a police K-9.

VISALIA, Calif. (KFSN) -- "I felt hopeless because I couldn't do anything for him but just stand there and watch him get bit by a dog," said Yajaida Keys of Visalia.

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

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

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

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

"They would come out, they wouldn't even cuff him. They would get him in the police car, he'd get in, they'd escort him to the hospital," said Keys.

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

A second officer arrived, an officer Keys said she recognized from one of her 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 commanded his dog to bite Gutierrez.

Gutierrez was bit on his face and neck.

The 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 police officers to use that type of force, they need to be facing some type of violent threat and there was none that day," DeSimone said.

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

The Visalia Police Department Sergeant Mike Short said the department was unable to comment about the incident because the criminal case is ongoing and because of the new, pending litigation.

In general, Short said officers undergo 40 hours of crisis intervention training put on by Tulare County mental health partners.

Sgt. Short would not comment on if the officers named in the lawsuit had undergone the training, calling it a personnel matter.

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

DeSimone says Keys completed community service for it.

The lawsuit seeks damages for the mental and physical injuries Gutierrez sustained, the emotional distress Keys has endured and is requesting more training for Visalia Police Officers.

"We're asking for the city of Visalia, for its police agency to investigate these officers and take appropriate corrective action," said DeSimone.

This is the second lawsuit filed against the Visalia Police Department this year alleging excessive force with a K-9 against individuals who are mentally ill.

DeSimone said he has submitted evidence in this case and the previous case to the California Attorney General's Office to ask for an investigation into the Visalia Police Department and their use of police K-9s.