Jeff Coloman was on the phone with his mother, packing up after working late on a Saturday evening when he sensed something enter his office.
Attacked at Work
A Voice of OC investigation found when county employees are injured by the sheriff’s department, they can’t get information on what happened to the officers involved and they can’t sue the department under state law.
“My back was turned to the opening, there’s only one way in and out of my office,” Coloman said in an interview with Voice of OC.
“Right when I turned,” Coloman said, “it latched onto my arm and started pulling.”
“It,” was a sheriffs’ K-9 Belgian Malinois, let loose for a training exercise at Coloman’s office inside an OC Public Works building, which sheriff deputies thought was empty.
He describes the experience of having a trained attack dog seize on a limb as harrowing, one that still haunts him today.
“It just started ripping tissue out and I heard so many loud noises coming from my arm,” Coloman said.
“Crunching, snapping,” he adds, “I thought I had crushed my bone.”
While Coloman was fighting the dog off, his mother could hear everything over the speakerphone and was calling out for him to answer.
“My mom was freaking out on the phone,” Coloman said. “And I couldn’t answer.”
The dog was on top of him for nearly a minute and a half.
“The dog had my arm and was shredding it,” Coloman said in an interview with Voice of OC. “I thought I was going to maybe just end up dying there.”
While the K-9 incident was nearly five years ago now, there still aren’t any public records available on what happened to the officers involved in the incident or details on changes made to the training program.
And that Coloman said, is unacceptable.
“What is there to hide?” Coloman said. “They will spend whatever they have to to avoid accountability.”
Coloman was hired by the county public works’ department when he was a teenager after he graduated from high school in Garden Grove and worked his way up from mechanic to fleet supervisor.
While he still works as a supervisor at the same facility, he was moved to a different role because his injuries prevented him from overseeing the auto-repair shop, and he still has over two years until he’s able to leave with his full pension.
“Thirty-two months, seventeen days,” Coloman said in an interview on Mar. 30. “That’s when I plan on leaving.”
“Blood All Over the Walls.” An Attack in the Office
When Coloman spotted a few sheriff’s deputies filling up their cars at the OC Public Work station’s gas pumps on the evening of Aug. 29, 2018, he thought nothing of it.
“It’s unmanned, it’s 24 hours a day. And I noticed that there were some deputies parked there,” Coloman said. “It’s not uncommon to see them there because that’s where they get fuel. So I didn’t think anything of it.”
“I heard the dogs barking inside the vehicles, didn’t think anything of it.”
But as he chatted with his mother on the phone while he packed up his things to head home for the day, he said the dog ran up behind him and attacked.
“Within those first few seconds, I didn’t even know what was happening,” Coloman said. “I’m screaming, in immediate pain.”
Coloman said the dog latched onto his arm and began shaking its head, knocking him over and leaving him with no way to escape.
“The natural human instinct is fight or flight, I couldn’t flee a small little office. So I tried fighting this dog,” Coloman said. “This thing was going to not stop until somebody stopped it and there was no way I was able to stop this dog.”
Coloman said it took nearly a minute and a half for three deputies to find him and pull the dog off, and they helped him outside before calling an ambulance to take him to the hospital.
“I was just leaking blood,” Coloman said. “I was just pumping blood out and it looked like spaghetti hanging out of my arm…I didn’t even want to look at it, I was going into shock.”
Coloman also said his mother was screaming for him to answer over the phone, but that he couldn’t keep the dog off long enough to answer.
“I couldn’t answer,” Coloman said. “I was in shock.”
Coloman lost nearly half his range of motion in his right arm and was left with permanent nerve damage according to his original worker’s comp settlement, along with crippling PTSD and a fear of dogs that has slowly improved with therapy in the years since the incident.
“There were, I think, 23 canine punctures,” Coloman said. “The tattoos really hide the scarring, but there’s tissue all balled up in there.”
“I can barely sleep.”
After the attack, it took 10 months of physical therapy before he was able to return to work.
While Coloman said both his physical and mental injuries have improved since the attack, to the point he’s recently bought a dog for his kids, it’s a daily struggle and reminder of his pain.
Coloman says his pinky and ring finger on his right hand regularly go numb, and that his hand occasionally cramps up and refuses to move.
Coloman said he had to give up surfing and BMX bike riding because of how little he could move his wrist, and says he often feels unable to keep up with both his sons, who are now eight and 12 years old.
“I have permanent damage for the rest of my life and have to take care of two boys,” Coloman said. “That dog and that department took that from me.”
Sheriffs Had a History of Unleashing K-9s at Public Works Office
While Coloman got attacked in 2018, that wasn’t his first time having to deal with K-9s at his place of work.
For his first 28 years working for the county, he said the sheriffs’ department and K-9 trainings were a regular sight at the county garage on 1102 E. Fruit Street in Santa Ana.
When he first started, he said deputies used to come by and notify the site supervisor that the building would be used for sheriffs training in advance.
“I remember our supervisor saying ‘Guys, heads up, they’re doing canine training this weekend,’” Coloman said. “And that was a cool heads up.”
But eventually he said they stopped getting early notices, and sheriffs would show up with their own keys to get into the property on the weekends or evenings.
“That heads up notification kind of went to the wayside,” Coloman said. “We would come in on a Monday and there would be paw marks and scratch marks all over the lockers, all over the toilets, and the supervisor door would be all scratched up.”
Coloman, who was promoted shortly before he was attacked by the K-9 unit, said he never got any types of notices or notifications about sheriffs training at the facility in advance.
“I came in one weekend about a year prior and it was a full blown session of K-9s. Local city police were there, and a helicopter was flying overhead,” Coloman said. “I knew nothing about it.”
Coloman said just two weeks before he was attacked the department was training in the employee parking lot, blocking anyone from leaving until they’d finished.
“One of the employees wanted to go out to his truck and couldn’t,” Coloman said. “The deputy said ‘You can wait, or you can see how fast you can run.’”
Department Refuses To Release Records on K-9 Attack
While the sheriffs’ department immediately stopped conducting K-9 trainings in county facilities not controlled by the sheriffs after Coloman was attacked, a Voice of OC review of the department’s K-9 policies found they made no other changes to department protocol after the incident.
Just two days before Coloman was attacked, the department nearly doubled the size of its K-9 rulebook, and updated the rules on how to handle unintentional dog bites.
Officers are required to notify their supervisors, complete a report and photograph any and all injuries as soon as possible, and their conduct is reviewed by the K-9 unit supervisor, as well as the Special Operations Division Captain, the rulebook stated policy specifies.
The department has not released any of those reports, and denied a Voice of OC records request for them.
“Depending on the circumstances, unintentional bites may result in the temporary kenneling of the dog and/or additional training at the Sheriff’s contracted trainer,” the policy states.
The policy also states that supervisors are required to “evacuate all tenants, workers or others from the facility or search area,” before a K-9 is released, but they’re also not allowed to let other cops patrol search the area before the dog is released.
While the department updated its regulations again in Mar. 2019, none of the language regarding unintentional dog bites or rules on how to manage a scene were updated.
To review a copy of the department’s 2018 policy, click here. To review a copy of the department’s 2019 policy, click here.
It’s unknown if any of the policy was followed, including whether any of the officers who were at the scene were disciplined over what happened to Coloman.
A few days after he was attacked, Coloman said he ran into then-county supervisor Todd Spitzer at the Orange International Street Fair over Labor Day weekend and told him about what happened.
When he first started at the county, Coloman had met Spitzer and worked on his car.
“I was like his own mechanic,” Coloman said. “I would go pick his vehicle up over at the Hall of Administration building… take it, wash it, change the oil, bring it back. So he was cool.”
At the next county board of supervisors meeting on Sept. 11, Spitzer brought up what happened to Coloman and publicly grilled the sheriffs’ department on the issue.
“I’ve known him for 20 years,” Spitzer said at the meeting. “The guy started checking oil and pumping gas and ascended into management. He’s been a loyal county employee.”
“My motivation is to make sure this never happens again. This is a major issue.”
While the Office of Independent Review reviewed what happened to Coloman at Spitzer’s request, according to the investigators’ report they weren’t allowed to review any of the sheriff’s records connected to the incident aside from the department’s existing K-9 policies.
To read the Office of Independent Review’s investigation of the incident, click here.
That was the only report the department produced that year, as a majority of the sitting county supervisors at the time, who were backed by the sheriff’s deputies union, looked at potentially shutting down the sheriffs watchdog altogether.
[Read: OC Supervisors Move to Take Away Independent Oversight]
The report found there was no formal policy in place that let the sheriffs train at sites owned by other county agencies, and the department refused to list the total number of places they trained at.
Auditors recommended any future trainings require an advanced email notice to workers at the affected buildings, physical signs put up in advance, and loud verbal search warnings.
The sheriffs department also denied a public records request from the Voice of OC to review the information, saying “the dog bite incident on August 29, 2018 is not considered a use of force subject to the disclosure requirements.”
The only record they released was the Call Detail Information Report, which confirmed the dog bite, the officers present and that Coloman was sent to OC Global Medical hospital.
While it remains unclear if any of the officers involved were disciplined for what happened to Coloman, all of the officers involved in the incident continue to be employed by the department according to records from Transparent California.
Multiple officers involved received promotions after the K-9 incident according to salary disclosures on Transparent California.
Coloman and his mother also sued the county after he was mauled and received some of the sheriff’s internal records, but those records were destroyed or returned to the sheriffs when the case was settled.
While Coloman’s mother received $10,000, he got nothing, with lawyers citing a portion of state law called exclusive remedy that blocked him from going any other route but through worker’s comp for restitution.
The county was also explicit that they admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, a copy of which was provided to Voice of OC by Coloman.
“It is understood that this settlement…is not an admission by any Party of any liability whatsoever as regards any wrongdoing,” the settlement states. “Plaintiffs must return all Protected Material produced by Defendants to Counsel for Defendants or destroy such material.”
Coloman said that to this day, he’s never received any apology from the sheriffs’ department, and they continue to bring K-9s onto the lot when they stop there for gas.
“They should say we’re sorry what happened, it was a bad accident,” Coloman said. “They don’t want to release (the records) because it’ll leave egg on their face.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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