Vacaville PD Under Fire for Punching Autistic Teen and for Punching K-9

17 mins read

In December 2020, a Vacaville police officer was captured on video hitting a police dog in the face, while the dog was in a submissive position and pinned down to the ground by the officer in question. Once the video broke on social media, it caused nationwide outrage. 

Now, the Vacaville PD is under fire again for a video showing an officer punching an autistic teen down to the ground.

A doorbell surveillance video from April 21, 2021 shows a police officer in Vacaville, California as he throws down a 17-year-old autistic teenager, Preston Wolf, to the ground and punches him in the face after he apparently tried to run away.

Adam Wolf, the teenager’s dad, shared the video online on Facebook, shocked and outraged by the footage. “I am pro police, but I am not pro ABUSE,” Wolf said on Facebook.

In the video, the officer in question approaches Preston and asks him to sit down. Preston sits on the sidewalk and after conversation, the officer grabs Preston’s scooter and throws it to one side. Preston gets up and appears to try to run away. The officer proceeds to grab him and throw him to the ground as the officer and Preston struggle together on the ground. The officer is then seen yelling loudly to demand that Preston put his hands behind his back. The cop then punches Preston in the face.

“You’re gonna get hurt. Don’t make me hurt you more,” the officer said before two other cops arrived.

In reaction, Wolf said his son probably got scared and was trying to back away. Being physically touched can elicit a strong reaction from anyone, but more so from a teen with autism and in a situation where the physical touch was not properly explained or warned of.

“He was trying to back away because he probably wanted to come home to us,” Wolf told a local CBS affiliate.

In a statement, the Vacaville PD claimed that the officer did not know Preston was autistic, but recent release of the audio of the call indicated otherwise.

Vacaville PD Punches K-9

With the surfacing of this video, many online have raised again their concerns about another video taken of a Vacaville police officer late last year, showing the officer punching a dog in the head.

The video was taken by Roberto Palomino, who said to reporters in January that he heard a strange sound and looked to investigate.

“It sounded like the dog was getting run over, like a dog in pain. That was the sound that made me look around,” Palomino told reporters. Palomino went on to describe how he saw the Vacaville PD officer punch the dog more than 10 times before Palomino got out his phone and began recording. Palomino said he was too afraid to approach the officer himself but started filming and uploaded the video to social media. 

The video, taken in December, showed the officer in question straddling the dog, pinning it to the ground, and then punching the dog in the head. 

In a statement, the Vacaville police department said the handler was training the dog. As the dog would not give up a toy and showed aggression towards the handler, the dog lunged at the officer in question and tried to attack him, according to the statement.

Many dog-training experts, animal lovers, and K-9 officers nationwide have responded to this statement with anger. 

K-9s are specially trained dogs that are used by police departments in searching for drugs and explosives, locating missing people, finding crime scene evidence, and aiding police in arrests. These canines undergo intense and strict training and are assigned to specific officers in the K-9 unit. 

K-9 officers are to undergo strict training as well to be equipped in handling the canines appropriately. With the surfacing of this video, however, many voices have raised concern about animal welfare and the Vacaville police department’s K-9 program overall. 

Picture of Vacaville PD Officer with a K-9
Creator: Joel Rosenbaum | Credit: The Reporter, Vacaville
Copyright: 2019, The Reporter

As of April 2021, the Vacaville PD have refused to disclose the identity of the officer and the officer in question is still on duty. He has since been removed from the K-9 unit, but he is still with the department. 

To many, the removal of the officer in question from the K-9 unit is not enough. They are asking for a complete removal of him from the department and a group of people held a protest against the department.

Voices are also concerned about the Department’s response to the incident. 

In a Facebook post on their official page, the PD seemed to be placing the blame solely on the canine and justifying the situation. 

In the original post, the PD wrote, “all training programs are not alike and need to be tailored to the needs of the specific dog and handler. This is generally achieved by a careful balance of physical discipline and reward based training.” 

Sparking National Outrage over Video of Vacaville PD Officer Punching Dog

However, dog trainers have responded to this post saying this is an outrageously false claim as aggression should not be addressed by “punching a dog in the face over and over again”. 

A commenter responded “As someone who’s married to a Master K9 Trainer who has trained many police and military dogs, there is no excuse for what was on that video. This was a very poorly executed response. You do not meet aggression with punching a dog in the face over and over, ever. My husbands number one rule is to never lay hands on a dog. This is how dogs get DESTROYED and returned to the trainers/breeders completely broken (which by the way, all the vendors are tired of seeing).” 

Other comments to the post expressed similar sentiments. 

Another poster, identifying himself as an officer, said, “Vacaville police, I’m a officer and this is NOT how you ‘correct’ a service dog. This officer needs to punished and lose this dog. The fact you said this is ‘corrective training’ shows you are willing to cover up other problems in your department.” 

In a later post, a woman pointed out several questions of concern with their PD’s statement.

“1) Why are you training in a remote area? In between trailers as if you’re hiding? 2) Why are looking around as to see if someone could see you? 3) Why are you straddling the dog for a period of time? I have never heard/witness any type of this training. 4) How many hits/punches does it take to correct a behavior?”

Vacaville PD has not released any official information on the identity or the disciplinary actions given to the officer in question. 

People online have posted comments on the Vacaville PD’s Facebook photos that show an officer with a K-9, claiming that this is the officer in question and the dog that was punched in the video. This has not been verified.

An online petition has been started to request that the Vacaville City Council and Police Department be held responsible for their lack of transparency. 

A History of Controversy for the Vacaville PD K-9 Unit

This is not the first time the Vacaville PD has a controversy regarding their K-9 unit. 

According to a lengthy, detailed post from a man identified as “Frank N.”, Frank assisted a family with helping train and donate a canine to the Vacaville PD’s K-9 unit back in 2014. The dog, named Henry, was trained by a K-9 trainer after the family reached out to Frank, a local retired K-9 trainer. Henry was given to the Vacaville PD and was even chosen as “officer of the year” for his work. 

A picture posted by Frank N. of Henry and his Vacaville PD handler

By December 2014, however, Henry’s handler had recently been promoted and per Vacaville PD policy, he could no longer remain in the K-9 unit. Instead of having Henry be assigned to another officer or given the opportunity to return to his original family, the K-9 unit decided to retire Henry. Henry was only 4 years old and in his prime as a police canine. The original family of Henry were not informed of this, despite the original verbal agreement with the Vacaville PD that “if and when Henry was to retire they had the first right of refusal in accepting him back.”

“Vacaville Police didn’t even contact them nor have enough responsibility to share these events with them. They only learned of them through my K9 grapevine,” stated Frank N, the original poster. Instead of abiding with the family’s request, Vacaville PD chose to replace Henry and send Henry off to an undisclosed location in Delaware. When the original family reached out to the PD, inquiring about Henry’s whereabouts, no response was provided by the Police Chief or the department. 

Many see this incident as just another example of what they see wrong with the Vacaville PD: poor policies and a lack of transparent communication. 

Frank and Henry’s original family expressed outrage at what they see as the PD’s refusal to even contact or honor their original agreement and return Henry. After unceremoniously replacing Henry, the PD spent thousands of dollars to train a new dog to magically fit their new handler’s needs, despite the dog’s poor performance in training as police K-9. 

Claims of Abuse, Not Only to K-9’s But Citizens

Upon further investigation into the Vacaville police department’s history, there have been several occasions where concerned citizens shared their own horror stories with the Vacaville PD.

In a Google review from 2020, Kenneth Greer, a local citizen shared his own experience with the Vacaville PD.

“I grew up in Vacaville and I would hear a lot of negative stories about VPD. Most, I thought, were exaggerations or misunderstandings. It wasn’t until I saw how they patrolled my high-school girlfriend’s neighborhood that I understood that they definitely behave differently toward people of color and women.

I’ve seen drunk white dudes threatening the police at the creek walk without any issue, and young latino kids get hassled walking home from the store. Also, they don’t publicly report their crime statistics like neighboring departments do. The cost of this department is more than the inflated salaries and pensions, it [is] the lives of the poor and minorities they harass. All that for opaque results.”

One poster, who identified herself as Carmel Garcia, wrote this comment on their Facebook page:

“Is this why we were threatened, harassed and intimidated by your police after they killed my son on 12/29/2017? Sam will never be forgotten and neither will the officers who killed him. I pray for your conscience. My son had committed no crime, as the video proves when you forced yourselves upon him and over powered a man needing medical attention. May God help you all.”

Pranie B, who identified herself as a long-time Vacaville resident said this in a post:

“Lived in Vacaville for years from late 70’s forward. VVPD was called to my home for domestic abuse and they utterly failed to protect me or my children. Spouse went on to attack other women after we split and has made no progress on taking responsibility or changing behavior. Please make sure your cops are trained to help abused women instead of abandoning them when they’re most vulnerable.”

Most recently, a nurse, who identified herself online as “Susie B.”, expressed her concerns about the PD’s blatant lack of abiding by safety protocols around high-risk citizens.

“I am a home health nurse. Several times I have seen Vacaville P.D. without masks coming in direct physical contact with people. Three of those times I have witnessed multiple officers come within 6 feet of my high risk patients in their home without PPE. They no doubt are easily spreading Covid-19 irresponsibly, carelessly, and without regard of the lives and safety of others – both in the community and in the prisons. It’s infuriating as a health care worker. Protect and serve? I’ve always felt so much respect and gratitude for police officers, but this is beyond a disappointment as they threaten the lives and safety of those they are meant to protect.

These individuals’ statements have not been verified by the Vacaville PD or independent news sources.

With what seems to be a lack of transparent reporting and appropriate measures taken towards their own officers, citizens are left wondering how much trust they can put into a department that has had a constant history of breaking ethical standards and then staying mute when things are exposed.

Thomas Lake

Resident tech nerd for the SF Times.

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