Editor’s Note: DeWitt Lacy, an attorney at the John Burris Law Firm, has been practicing civil rights law for more than a decade. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
The controversy over police use of excessive force has been front and center in this pandemic year. The murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a number of fatal shootings by law enforcement officials and the sometimes harsh treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters have rightly dominated the national debate. But the public remains largely ignorant of the damage done by another form of police violence: Dog bites.
Dogs are inherently likable and many police departments have given K-9, as these dogs are known, a starring role. Officers take them to visit children at school, celebrate their drug busts, detail their training regimen on social media and, when they die, their funerals meet all law enforcement honors. If the public could vote on a favorite police officer, the winner might end up being a K-9.
However, police K-9s inflict a staggering number of bites each year. More than 32,500 people were taken to emergency rooms in the US for K-9 bites between 2005 and 2013, according to a study published in 2019 by researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine. Black people accounted for 42% of the wounded.
Out in the field, the public usually misses out on what happens when a K-9 bites. The dog is routinely unleashed to hunt and sink its teeth into suspects who are running or hiding from officers. But sometimes it turns on innocent bystanders. And sometimes it kills. Our country should long ago have ended this form of state-sanctioned mauling, which harkens back to the era of slave hunters before the Civil War.
In a previous study, researchers at Indiana University of Pennsylvania found in 2008 that two-thirds of police dog bites resulted in a trip to the hospital, a higher rate than any other non-lethal form of police force.
In the 1960s, Black people marching for equality in the South had police dogs set on them. The tactic backfired, as the American public sided with the demonstrators during a watershed moment for civil rights. Yet the use of canines has only become more entrenched in police work, barely evolving with the times.
Many people are mauled by police dogs responding to minor or victimless crimes.
As a civil rights attorney, I have represented multiple homeless people who bear the scars of police dog bites. I have learned that biting, like all dogs’ trained behaviors, must be continually reinforced in K-9s or they lose the desire to attack. My years of experience on these cases, along with dog-bite incidents in places ranging from Missouri to Maryland and North Carolina, among others, have also left me with the sickening impression that our most vulnerable population – people seeking shelter in abandoned buildings – are sometimes being used as training dummies.
One of my clients, Laureen Frausto, was mauled in 2019 inside an abandoned post office in West Covina, California, where she and other homeless people had found shelter. The attack happened after police were called by someone who saw people going into the building. Officers set their K-9 loose and Frausto, who was fast asleep, was woken by the torture of a K-9 tearing into her forearm. She is still facing a criminal charge of resisting arrest and her civil lawsuit is still pending in US District Court for the Central District of California. In Frausto’s arrest report, the K-9 handler claimed he sent the dog to search the building “after issuing several verbal warnings” and that his intention was to take the suspect into custody as safely as possible. He also claimed that Frausto was resisting arrest.
One of the most popular breeds of K-9 is the Belgian Malinois. With a bite that exerts 195 pounds per square inch of pressure, the Malinois is more than capable of cracking bones. That’s what happened to Frausto, whose arm was broken by the dog’s jaws while it dragged her more than 40 feet to deliver her to the officer, who only then commanded the dog to release his grip, according to the lawsuit. The complaint filed against the city of West Covina says the dog mangled Frausto’s flesh for more than three minutes, while she screamed for it to be called off. Trainers say a K-9 should be stopped from biting within seconds. In a response to Frausto’s lawsuit, the city of West Covina admitted she was injured by their K-9 but denied all other allegations without addressing for how long Frausto was gripped by the dog.
It’s taken four surgeries so far to piece together Frausto’s shredded arm. And it’ll never work the same as before.
In Indianapolis, police K-9s bit someone about every five days between 2017 and 2019. (Last month, Indianapolis police officials announced that K-9 handlers would nearly double the amount of time they spend in training each month and every K-9 handler and supervisor would activate their body cameras whenever they deploy a dog. The Police Department also recorded a message to be played on a loudspeaker during K-9 deployments, warning bystanders to go inside.)
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, data from 2017-2019 shows dogs routinely bit Black teenagers, according to an investigation published last year by the Marshall Project and other news organizations. In February, the Baton Rouge mayor asked the police chief to institute a policy forbidding the use of police dogs to chase juvenile suspects unless they pose an immediate threat.
Sometimes, they’re fatal, as in the 2018 case of a Montgomery, Alabama, man who bled to death after an attacking K-9 tore open an artery in his groin. After first denying the existence of body camera video of the incident, the city of Montgomery is now fighting to keep the video from being released to the public. The man’s family is seeking the release after they were allowed to view it. Their civil rights lawsuit against the handler is in the discovery phase.
The Marshall Project investigation found many police departments use dogs for “pain compliance” – to make people obey orders from officers. That’s like saying you should kneel on someone’s neck to make them obey. That should be unacceptable. The Seattle Police Department recognizes that and has led the way in specifically forbidding use of a K-9 to bite for pain compliance, and others should follow suit.
The Seattle policy, adopted in 2019, also requires a K-9 handler to justify a bite on the grounds of public safety or risk to officers, clarifying that “simply refusing to surrender or escaping, is not, on its own, a justification for a bite.” Last month, the Washington state legislature sent to the governor a bill that would seek to reduce the number of K-9 bites in the state. The bill would create a working group to produce strategies for reducing K-9 bites, which could include outlining situations where police would be forbidden from deploying a canine. The legislation also calls for ending the use of dogs for crowd control.
The Chicago Police Department, which according to the Marshall Project investigation almost never used a dog for an arrest between 2017 and 2019, has clear policies to limit when a K-9 can be deployed and bans their use against crowds, protests and civil disturbances.
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The use of police dogs can evolve with the times by sticking with the jobs dogs do best. The dog has an easy time sniffing out narcotics. It shines at search and rescue or finding bodies after a natural disaster. Biting humans should not be included in any dog’s job description.
For thousands of years, dogs have evolved to refrain from biting us. It’s how they became our best friends. We took a huge step backward by training them to maul people. Now, as we consider less violent methods of law enforcement, it’s time to eliminate mauling from the list of acceptable police tactics.