Saskatoon police refuse to release policy on how they use dogs after violent arrest

This file photo shows a Saskatoon police officer using a police dog to track a suspect. Saskatoon police will not release their policy on how police service dogs are used. (Dan Zakreski/CBC - image credit)
This file photo shows a Saskatoon police officer using a police dog to track a suspect. Saskatoon police will not release their policy on how police service dogs are used. (Dan Zakreski/CBC - image credit)

Warning: this story contains distressing details and images.

Edward Soonias says he doesn't remember the car chase, the sirens or Saskatoon police officers chasing him on foot across the park in the city's Meadowgreen neighbourhood.

The 23-year-old does remember sitting slumped against a fence between two garages in an alley in the dark, "thinking what I did was dumb."

He also remembers the police dog.

"I just remember looking up and there's the dog, right there. Right when we looked at each other, the dog went right at my arm," he said in an interview.

"They just let the dog attack me and I said, 'I'm not even resisting, I'm not resisting.' I said, 'Get your dog off me, what are you doing?' And that's when I started seeing chunks of meat by my head. From the light of the flashlight I could see my arm being ripped."

The arrest happened around 3:30 a.m. CST on Sept. 21. Five hours later, Saskatoon police contacted the Saskatchewan Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT). The outside agency will investigate the circumstances of the arrest and the cause of Soonias's injury.

Soonias sustained serious injuries to his left arm.
Soonias sustained serious injuries to his left arm.

Soonias sustained serious injuries to his left arm. (Submitted by Edward Soonias)

The Saskatoon Police Service will not release its written policy on how police service dogs are used, or do interviews on the general subject, because of the SIRT investigation.

"It's also not our practice to release copies of our policies, but if you're so inclined, you can try to obtain it through a FOIPP (freedom of information and protection of privacy) request," spokeswoman Kelsie Fraser said in an email.

Saskatoon lawyer Nicholas Blenkinsop said this approach undercuts the credibility of police. He's handled a half-dozen cases where suspects have been injured by police dogs.

Blenkinsop, who is also a former prosecutor, said that in his experience the Saskatoon service is anything but transparent about its policies around when and how the dogs are used.

"We need to have robust and ample systems of accountability, because otherwise their legitimacy is going to be undermined," he said in an interview.

"One of the ways you ensure their accountability is to make sure there is easy access to lots of information about what they are doing and how they are doing it."

Suspect hiding, not running

On Sept. 25, SIRT sent out a news release saying it would be investigating what happened to Soonias. The release partially corroborates Soonias's account of what happened.

"A police service dog was used to track the man, who was discovered hiding between garages in a nearby alley. During his arrest, the man sustained a serious injury to his arm as a result of contact with the police service dog," the release said.

Soonias told CBC that he was not running when he encountered the dog, and that he did not resist beyond trying to free his arm once the dog began tearing off chunks of flesh.

Soonias said he could hear footsteps approaching as he sat between the garages.

"All I heard was them say, 'Right there,' and that was it. I could hear the footsteps coming closer, I could hear them coming closer for a while, they were walking around in that area, that's when they threw the dog over," he said.

"They didn't give a call out to the dog or anything."

Soonias said the dog mauled his arm for about 30 to 45 seconds, "then I just remember them going on top of me and just kind of punching me."

Edward Soonias says he wasn't resisting when a police dog tore away at his arm for 30 to 45 seconds. Saskatoon police won't discuss the incident, citing the ongoing investigation by SIRT.
Edward Soonias says he wasn't resisting when a police dog tore away at his arm for 30 to 45 seconds. Saskatoon police won't discuss the incident, citing the ongoing investigation by SIRT.

Edward Soonias says he wasn't resisting when a police dog tore away at his arm for 30 to 45 seconds. Saskatoon police won't discuss the incident, citing the ongoing investigation by SIRT. (Submitted by Edward Soonias)

Edward Soonias is not the first person to get seriously injured by a Saskatoon police dog during an arrest.

Last year, two officers were charged with aggravated assault following Public Complaints Commission investigations into separate incidents from 2019 and 2020.

In both cases, suspects had to be taken to hospital after being injured by police dogs. Charges against the officers were stayed in July and September of this year.

Criminal charges and hospitalizations are the extreme end of the spectrum. More typical are police news releases with a line about how a suspect was treated by paramedics for "injuries consistent with a canine bite."

Province says municipalities must implement own policies

The Saskatchewan Police Commission published a 75-page manual in 2005 outlining training and certification standards for police dogs. The detailed document covers everything from agility, obedience and tracking, to criminal apprehension and narcotics searches.

"The standard sets minimum training for municipal police canine handler and dog teams to encourage sound practices and professionalism," Justice communications consultant Dustin Gill said in email.

"Each municipal police service is further required to implement their own specific policies around the use of canines."

The scene of the crash at Cahill Park.
The scene of the crash at Cahill Park.

The scene of the crash at Cahill Park. (Dan Zakreski/CBC News)

Blenkinsop said this undercuts the whole role of the provincial commission.

"It seems strange to set up a policy that is like, this is a Saskatchewan-wide policy for how police dogs should be dealt with and trained in Saskatchewan, and then it's like, but shucks darn, if you municipalities want to do something different that is more dangerous, that is different from this policy, we don't have a problem with that," he said.

"What is the role of the police oversight body if you're not overseeing and working to implement the Saskatchewan policies in relation to police service animals?"

Gill said the commission and provincial police chiefs began reviewing the 2005 policy in May of this year "to evaluate existing standards for police service dogs and consider potential updates as required."

A timeline for when that review will be completed is expected to be done by mid-October.

Dogs not only used on fleeing suspects

In the news release on Sept. 21, Saskatoon police said that officers spotted a car with two people inside driving erratically in the area around 21st Street W and Avenue Y S at around 3:30 a.m. CST.

They tried to stop it but it took off at high speed, then crashed into a ball diamond bench at Cahill Park, police say. That's when Soonias took off across the park and into the alley near 20th Street.

Nicholas Blenkinsop has handled a half dozen cases where a person was injured by a police dog.
Nicholas Blenkinsop has handled a half dozen cases where a person was injured by a police dog.

Nicholas Blenkinsop has handled a half dozen cases where a person was injured by a police dog. (CBC)

Soonias said that he ran because, in his experience, "you're just naturally scared of police."

"I wasn't wanted, I wasn't on like a warrant or anything. It's just instinct."

Blenkinsop said he's heard people in similar cases say that if you don't want to get bitten by a police dog, then don't run from police.

"I can indicate that it's not universally the case that it's an individual who is running that is eventually bitten by a police dog," he said.

"They're definitely situations where police dogs bite people who are lying prone on the ground or lying in a hiding spot and not moving."

Edward Soonias is scheduled to appear in Saskatoon provincial court on Nov. 2. He is charged with evading police and dangerous driving.