A federal judge ruled that it was not “unreasonable” for a police officer to use a patrol dog on an unarmed Texas woman who suffered significant injuries after the animal bit her for roughly 62 seconds, court documents show.
The decision, filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Houston and first reported by NBC News, dismissed an excessive force lawsuit filed in April 2020 over the July 5, 2018, incident in Conroe, north of Houston.
The encounter was recorded in body camera video that showed the dog, Thor, repeatedly biting Olivia Sligh, 29, as his handler appeared to shout release commands that were not obeyed.
In an interview this week, Sligh said the incident left her with more than a dozen scars, herniated discs and questions about how officers responded to a 911 call from her boyfriend, who reported that she was suicidal and had cut herself after a change in medication.
“What they should have done is treated me like a mentally ill person, and not like I just shot somebody,” she said. “That’s how I feel I got treated.”
Judge Charles Eskridge said the use of force was warranted because Sligh resisted Conroe Police Department K-9 officer Tyson Sutton and Montgomery County Sheriff's Deputy Alexis Montes.
The decision says she "assaulted" Montes while he tried to handcuff her.
The officer’s “use of the canine under these circumstances can’t be said to be unreasonable,” Eskridge said. “Neither can it be said that his subsequent inability to instantly detach the canine somehow made its use unreasonable.”
He added: “True, the time from bite to detachment amounted to about sixty-two seconds, but this was in the midst of Sligh’s own continued struggles and multiple instructions for the canine to detach — with the initial bite occurring only because Sligh refused to comply with orders and physically resisted arrest.”
Sligh denied assaulting Montes, telling NBC News that “I was pulling my arms and not letting him grab me.”
Steven Selbe, a lawyer for Sutton, applauded the judge’s decision, saying Eskridge “carefully considered the motions, viewed the available video evidence and produced a thoughtful and well-reasoned opinion granting the motions to dismiss of Officer Sutton and the City. We agree with his reasoning.”
The encounter occurred in a wooded area, where Sligh fled after her partner, Johnathon Stapleton, tried taking her to the hospital, according to the lawsuit. She told NBC News that she was experiencing a “downward spiral” after a psychiatrist prescribed her lithium for bipolar disorder.
Sligh said she had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder several years before, and the new medication “made me more depressed, more upset,” she said. “I was lashing out.”
In body camera video provided by Sligh's lawyer, an officer dispatched to find her can be heard saying that Stapleton reported that she had also been drinking heavily.
After several minutes of tracking her, the video shows Sutton, the K-9 officer, finding Sligh and saying: "Do not walk towards me, do not walk towards me. The dog will bite you."
"You’re hunting me, but don’t walk towards you," she could be heard responding, before adding an expletive.
Sligh appears to respond with another expletive after Montes orders her to put her hands behind her back.
“I haven’t done nothing,” she can be heard saying.
It isn't clear if the officers asked Sligh about her injury or her mental illness before instructing her to place her hands behind her back. The video does not appear to show them addressing the matter and the judge's decision does not provide details. Sligh said she did not recall the officers asking.
The officers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Selbe, Sutton's lawyer, said in a statement that “it is both ironic and sad that deputy Montes and officer Sutton were trying to help the plaintiff and her actions led to an additional injury occurring.”
He added: “However, the video clearly contradicts plaintiff’s allegations of reckless, out-of-control officers and instead reveals that they did it right.”
As the encounter escalates, the body camera video shows Sutton shining a flashlight on Sligh as she appears to struggle with the deputy. Moments later, Sutton can be seen releasing Thor and Sligh is heard repeatedly screaming.
“Get this dog off me,” she can be heard shouting at one point.
Eventually, the dog releases its bite and the officers can be heard telling Sligh to put her hands behind her back.
Sligh was taken into custody, according to the decision. She told NBC News that no charges were filed against her.
A spokesman for the Conroe Police Department referred questions about the case to the city attorney, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. The Montgomery County Sheriff's Office also referred questions to the county attorney's office, which did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Ian Adams, a professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina and a police dog and use of force expert, wasn’t familiar with the case but reviewed the video and court documents for NBC News.
He said he understood why authorities might have wanted to act quickly and use a dog to search for Sligh, given that she had harmed herself and was bleeding, and it wasn’t clear where she was.
But Adams questioned why the officer relied on what he described as “one of the highest levels of force that can be used.”
“Why weren’t other uses of force used?” he said, especially since there was no evidence Sligh was armed. Adams also found the duration of Thor's bite “concerning.”
“That’s a long time for a dog to be on a bite,” he said. “Five or more release commands from the handler is too many by any certification standard.”
It isn’t clear who certifies Conroe police dogs or what the department’s K-9 policies or standards are. A police spokesman declined to comment, citing the lawsuit.
Sligh’s lawyer, Randall Kallinen, filed a notice of appeal in the case Aug. 11.