Police K-9 handler steps down after KATU investigates officer-biting cases

Police K-9 handler steps down after KATU investigates officer-biting cases »Play Video
Gladstone police officer Steve Mixson and his canine partner, Dyno.

GLADSTONE, Ore. -- A Gladstone police officer's pattern of "bad handling" and "bad judgment" calls while working with his canine partner, Dyno, have come back to bite him.

The On Your Side Investigators unearthed a damning nine-page report of Gladstone police Officer Steve Mixson and his handling of Dyno, who bit four officers - including Mixson - while responding to criminal calls in the last two years. The latest and most serious incident, in January, involved veteran Gladstone Officer Travis Hill who was bitten so hard by Dyno, he had to have surgery and extended time off to recover.

The report details each situation where an officer was bit and includes analysis from three expert canine handlers who concluded Mixson's K-9 deployments of the dog "have not been appropriate uses of the dog."

Roughly two weeks after KATU started inquiring about Dyno's biting incidents, Mixson stepped down as a handler.

In a memo from Gladstone police Chief Jim Pryde to the city administrator, Peter Boyce, on March 31, Pride said, "Sergeant Jundt, Sergeant Jolley and I met with Officer Mixson to talk at length about the results of the inquiry and the changes needed in the K-9 program. Unfortunately, following inquiries into our K-9 program from KATU News, Officer Mixson chose to step down from his position as Dyno’s handler."

Mixson's been a Gladstone police officer for five years and led the K-9 unit for two, according to the report.

Now, the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office and the Oregon City Police Department are considering not using Gladstone's K-9 for calls and training in part because of "their concerns over Officer Mixson and his use of poor judgment, emotional decision making and emotional reactions to high stress situations."

Each incident happened while Mixson and Dyno responded to criminal calls - all involving weapons - including a knife and three guns.

First Incident

Dyno's first officer-biting happened Feb. 24, 2012 while responding to a domestic disturbance of a military veteran who "menaced a female with a knife." The report states two deputies were in a ground fight with the veteran when Mixson threatened to unleash Dyno if the man didn't stop fighting.

When the man exposed his right forearm, the report states, Mixson gave Dyno the bite command. However, in that moment, one of the deputy's hands passed near the veteran's hands and "Dyno could not differentiate" between the two, biting the deputy instead. He had a puncture wound in his hand and was treated at the hospital.

"You don't use a dog for pain compliance. It is too risky to send a dog, controlled or not, into a ground fight with other officers because the dog will go after whomever its instincts tell it is losing," said Hilary Robinson, a retired canine handler from the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office and Master Trainer.

JR Frost, a retired handler who worked for the Eugene Police Department for 30 years wrote, "Inexperienced officer. This was not a dog call. Any time fighting, almost always result in an officer bite."

Frost continued, "To drive a dog into a bite is very difficult. It is like using a spray gun expecting to get all rounds to hit center on a small target."

The third canine expert, Duanne Hinrichs, a handler and officer at the Olympia Police Department estimated that Mixson would only have had a 33 percent success rate. "He should not have brought a dog to a knife fight,” Hinrichs wrote.

Second Incident

Dyno's second bite happened almost a year later on Feb. 10, 2013. Three deputies and a sergeant responded to a domestic call between a father and a son inside a home they believed contained firearms. Mixson brought Dyno inside and positioned himself near other officers who were threatening to kick in the door to get to the two men. 

According to the report, the sergeant suddenly kicked the door, which triggered Dyno to bite him in the upper right hamstring. The report states the sergeant was left with one puncture wound that he treated at home.

"Officer Mixson reports that he was caught off guard from the Sgt.'s immediate kick, and did not react fast enough to prevent the bite," the report states.

Again the three experts laid into Mixson.

"Really bad judgment. He should not have had the dog on that call. This was a call for a cop, not a handler," Robinson said in the report.

Hinrichs said, "Positioning by handler was wrong. …”

Third Incident

Dyno bit again nine months later on Nov. 15, 2013. This time the dog bit his handler.

Dyno bit Mixson while the pair was inside an apartment building, helping six other officers in an outside agency during a disturbance between roommates where one had a gun.

While one of the men tried to escape the apartment, several officers began shouting and Dyno bit Mixson once on his left forearm. He was treated at the hospital.

While Robinson believed this was common "handler error,” Hinrichs contended this was "Bad handling. The handler is missing the dog's body language. If he was working as a handler he would have had better communication with the dog. …"

Hinrichs added, "You can't be both handler and cop."

Fourth Incident

The final and most serious biting incident happened Jan. 22 of this year.

Officer Mixson and Hill were at a traffic stop with a wanted felon behind the wheel. Both officers unholstered their guns - Mixson even pointed it at the felon - but Hill decided to use a Taser "as a less lethal option." He fired it, and then dropped the cartridge to reload. In the melee, Mixson unleashed the dog.

Instead of running toward the felon, Dyno attacked Hill's leg because he "saw the most obvious threat that was closest in proximity to his handler and hit Officer Hill who was also displaying an excited demeanor."

While Mixson tried to heel the dog, Dyno took a second nip at Hill's shoulder. The bite allowed a few seconds for the driver to escape.

He was later caught by a different canine and arrested.

The three experts wrote scathing responses to Mixson's actions here.

Hinrichs wrote, "This was a train wreck. Dog likely never knew there was a guy in the car. … This is lack of experience for the dog and the handler."

Robinson added, "… no justification. Officer Mixson switched from cop to handler and failed."

The report continued, "The reoccurring theme suggested that Officer Mixson may be pre-disposed with a stress reaction that results in poor judgment and unnecessary outcomes."

The report also commits about a page and half to findings and recommendations for Mixson and the way the department handles K-9s. If those changes will be applied remain unclear since Mixson no longer handles canines.

Gladstone's police chief, police spokesman and city administrator refused to speak with KATU on camera or even offer any details for this story.

"I will not be giving any interviews on this topic," Pryde said in an email to the On Your Side Investigators. "You are welcome to attend our city council meeting tomorrow night where I will be giving a brief update on the program."

The department never responded to KATU's initial public records request either.

Why? The chief wouldn't comment on that point either but Boyce sent a short email statement where he said he would look into it and "make sure it is processed."

Dynamic Duo

In 2012, Officer Mixson received the Oregon Peace Officers Association's Distinguished Service Award. Mixson received his award for creating the first K-9 unit, which has become a source of community pride for Gladstone. In their first six months as a team, Mixson and Dyno captured 14 criminal suspects.

Mixson was also recognized for his work as the police department's defensive tactics instructor, creating a program that will help keep fellow officers safe.

KATU reached out to several other trainers in the area for perspective.

Sgt. Paul Coleman is the canine unit supervisor at the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office. He had not read the report but he had seen Dyno in training and called Dyno a good dog.

"The dog is not the issue, generally speaking, because the dog is a product of what we have trained it to do," Coleman said. "So the dog is not what I look for initially when I hear about these incidents."

Selling Dyno?

In a memo, Chief Pryde stated, "Dyno is regarded by police K-9 trainer experts as a great police service dog" and said if they are unable to find any Gladstone Police Department officers suitable for the K-9 handler position, then the department will consider either selling Dyno back to Mixson or selling Dyno to another police department. The chief said he's already had one call of interest.

There will be a City Council meeting about Dyno, the biting incidents and the report during a Gladstone City Council meeting Tuesday night.