The Vacaville Police Department that sparked nationwide outrage when a video captured an officer repeatedly punching his police K9 in the face is under scrutiny again — this time after home surveillance footage captured an officer throwing an autistic child to the ground and then punching him in the face.
Four months and three investigations after a recorded video of a Vacaville police officer punching a police K9 repeatedly in the face went viral, the Vacaville police department started an update — at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday evening — which included that the department had gotten rid of Gus the K9 while retaining the police officer who punched him.
The dozen community members who were still online at 12:30 a.m. to speak up for Gus said the police update at the literal midnight hour in the agenda was “very disappointing,” “unsatisfactory,” and “not transparent at all.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Vice Mayor Nolan Sullivan, who admitted that the report was so “vague” that he wouldn’t be able to tell a constituent what it said and added that it was so late that his brain was “not adequately working.”
What Lady Freethinker (LFT) was able to piece together from the update, given by Acting Police Chief Ian Schmutzler, is as follows:
- Gus, the punched K9, was cleared to return to duty, but he was instead “returned to the vendor” — with no further clarification about who that was or what would happen to him
- The officer who punched Gus, who remained unnamed, will no longer be a K9 handler but will remain on the police force
- A review of the department’s K9 policy determined changes were needed and would be made, but details about those changes weren’t given — beyond that training would focus on corrective discipline that didn’t involve strikes
- There were “inconsistencies” between an evaluation from Anchor Therapy and the VCA Sacramento Vet and Referral Center about the seriousness of Gus’s injuries — without any detail about what those inconsistencies were.
Although Schmutzler said the releasable reports related to the investigations would be available online Wednesday, they were not provided to council members as part of a staff packet prior to the meeting or the discussion.
Multiple city residents who spoke during public comment condemned the city’s placement of the agenda topic so late in the meeting, alleging the move was an intentional attempt to silence members of the community who care about Gus while covering up alleged corruption in the department.
“You just told Vacaville police that you can punch a dog out, you can injure him, and that’s ok,” one man said. “The other issue we have here is that you put this so late in the agenda, it’s close to midnight now, that you’re not going to get a lot of comments.”
Karen Parks, the president of Napa Valley German Shepherd rescue who has been following Gus’ case, said she was “appalled” and “extremely disappointed” in both the update and the outcome.
“I was really hoping there was going to be some transparency,” Parks said.
Another woman echoed that thought by pointing out there had been no update on Gus, beyond that he was reportedly “doing very well” after being returned to the “vendor.”
“As we see, you are not going to be holding people accountable,” she said. “We already knew this was going to be a coddling of us, a political statement. Where’s the dog? We don’t know.”
Earlier in the virtual meeting, more than a dozen community members tied the recorded abuse of Gus to recent footage captured by a Ring home surveillance camera, which shows an officer throwing Preston Wolf, a 17-year-old autistic teen who initially complied with the officer’s commands, to the ground and punching him.
One city resident said she had “great concerns” about the officer who punched Gus remaining on the police force.
“As many of us know, sociopaths start out by torturing animals,” she said. “It concerns me that we have an officer who would treat a dog this way. I wonder how he treats humans.”
The link between animal abuse and human abuse
Vacaville made headlines in December 2020, when a passerby recorded a police officer repeatedly punching Gus, his police K9 in the face — allegedly because Gus had refused to give back a toy the officer had given him for completing a training exercise.
This month the city made national headlines again after a Ring home surveillance camera caught an officer throwing to the ground and punching Preston Wolf, a 17-year-old autistic teen who initially complied with the officer’s commands.
Adam Wolf, Preston’s father, posted the videos, which then went viral on Facebook, Tiktok, TMZ, and other platforms, with the audio capturing the officer shouting at the teen, “Don’t make me hurt you more!”
“We had a punched K9,” one member of the public said during Tuesday’s public comment. “Now we’re punching human beings. When is it going to stop?”
While social media buzzed with speculation about whether the same officer was involved in both incidents, more than a dozen people who spoke during the council meeting pointed to a department culture they described as “toxic.”
“The way they beat on Preston was the way they beat on that dog,” another community member said. “It’s the culture.”
Another, questioning the department’s training protocols, added, “What we saw happen with Preston is exactly what we saw happen with the strikes with the dog. If you look at the videos, [the strikes] are identical.”
During the meeting, multiple people from communities of color, the disabled, and other vulnerable populations said they felt unsafe and victimized by police within the city.
Community members said they had been voicing concerns about the police department’s culture to police leadership for decades but had been ignored, brushed aside, or told to attend events like “Coffee with a Cop.”
Public frustration and concerns simmered over into the council’s discussion of declaring Vacaville as a “Place of Peace,” with multiple commentators condemning the move as “performative,” a “Band-Aid,” and another example of the city’s history of “doing nothing.”
Vacaville Police Chief Ian Schmutzler, in an official department statement posted to Facebook said, “I want to assure you that I do not take this circumstance lightly and that I am dedicated to doing all I can to ensure accountability and transparency as we examine all aspects of this incident.”
Council discussion and follow up
Vice Mayor Sullivan, who opened council comments on the K9 incident, noted that during his time on council he had noticed a pattern of issues related to the city’s public safety department that he considered “serious.”
“At some point, a pattern is not a coincidence,” he said, adding that changes to personnel were forthcoming. “We have a crisis of public trust in Vacaville right now, and we need to address it.”
Councilmember Jason Roberts said he would have liked to know what the discrepancies between the reports entailed.
He added he couldn’t make informed comments without that information and also questioned why only one of the reporting agencies was present to give updates to the council, noting that the presentation only represented “one side” of the story.
Councilmember Jeannette Wylie said she had been able to observe K9 handlers during trainings and that she felt officers were dedicated.
“There’s no excuse for what happened in December, but I feel like we are moving forward in a new direction,” she said.
Councilmember Roy Stockton, who cited his background in law enforcement for more than 15 years, said he was glad that Gus was okay and that he also was glad that the department had its entire K9 policy reviewed.
On Wednesday afternoon, Interim City Spokesperson Kris Concepcion answered several follow up questions — including that the police department has no intention of ever releasing the name of the officer who punched Gus the K9 in the face.
“Due to the particularized threats against the handler, we are not releasing the name of the involved officer,” he said via email.
Concepcion said the Vacaville PD acquired Gus from Sworn K9 services, to which he was returned. What happens to Gus now will be up to that agency, he added.
Whether the unnamed officer received any discipline other than not being allowed to handle K9s was not disclosable, Concepcion said.
“As much as we would like to provide you with detailed information on the investigation and any subsequent actions, the Peace Officer Bill of Rights prohibits an employer from disclosing confidential personal peace officer information, including disciplinary action,” he said. “I can assure you steps have been taken to ensure an incident like this will not happen again.”
During the meeting, Vacaville’s city manager relayed that Gus had been purchased using funds from the city’s General Fund — in other words, using taxpayer dollars.
Keramet Reiter — an associate professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society and at the School of Law at the University of California, Irvine — said she’s seen accountability issues statewide given department’s ability to not cite officers.
“What we see in the criminal justice system is it’s difficult to get clean information on anything, even with police involved shootings, where there are body cameras involved,” she told Lady Freethinker. “This has been an ongoing discussion here in California. These are troubling events, and there is increasing resistance to the lack of oversight and accountability.”
Some of Reiter’s research and work has focused on K9 use in prison settings. She said there, as in within law enforcement, more research needs to be done for a more comprehensive look at how animals are being treated.
Reiter also said how Vacaville’s police department handles the officers involved with the incidents — with K9 Gus and with teen Preston Wolf — could have broader implications for the community.
“If you tolerate punching a dog or punching an autistic teen, it’s a slippery slope toward impunity,” she said. “Transparency and oversight are huge in terms of trust building. You either have to share these names or you have to have an independent agency with investigative ability and oversight.”