Is a Dog Bite a Weapon? Analyzing Police Dogs Statistics

July 31, 2022 Criminal Defense

A man’s best friend? Or most terrorizing weapon? Police officers have used the assistance of dogs for years, to help track down suspects, sniff out drugs, or in some cases chase down suspects who have fled from the authorities.

While dogs are known to be incredibly smart and loyal creatures, there are downsides to deploying them in criminal cases. A recent study from The Marshall Project has highlighted the negative facts about K-9 dogs, and how they have done more harm than good by attacking suspects as well as citizens.

We will cover the details from the investigation, along with the most recent case of a K-9 chase gone wrong in Florida.

Facts on Police K-9s

The Marshall Project released an extensive study on police K-9s and attacks on citizens. The organization reviewed over 150 severe dog bites, finding that almost none of the victims were ever armed. Most of the victims of these attacks were suspected of non-violent, low-level crimes. There were even a few innocent witnesses who were attacked. One case even included a man in Arizona whose face was bitten off, and a man in Alabama who was mauled to death after the police K-9 tore an artery in his groin.

The following is a list of the top takeaways from The Marshall Project’s findings:

  • Police K-9 bites happen across the nation, but in some cities more than others – There is no national database to track the use of K9 units or K9 unit dog bite incidents. While some cities have only had a few incidents in the last few years, others have reported many. For example, the Sheriff’s Department in Jacksonville, Florida had 160 bites from 2017-2019.
  • Bites from police K-9s can cause severe injuries or even death – According to experts, dog bites can be similar to shark attacks. This means using them on suspects can result in torn muscles, scars, and dangerous infections. The most recent death caused by a police dog was in 2018.
  • Many of the victims attacked were non-violent, and suspected of minor crimes or no crime at all – Police departments may claim to only use police K-9s when the suspect is accused of a violent crime, or if the officers are in danger. However, the data found that the police dogs are most frequently used in cases involving traffic violations, shoplifting, mental health checks, trespassing, and running from the police.
  • Most bite victims are men, who are disproportionately Black – After investigating police departments in Los Angeles, California and Ferguson, Missouri, the study found that K-9 dogs most often bit non-White people.
  • There are instances where police officers cannot the dogs, which can make injuries even worse – Police K-9s are trained to release a bite on verbal comment, yet there are times in which the officers are unable to stop the dog from attacking. There were numerous cases in the study that found the attack lasted minutes as the police struggled to get the K-9 to release the suspect. In some cases, this can even make injuries worse.
  • There is little accountability or compensation to victims of K-9 bites – It can be difficult to receive compensation in the event of a police dog attack. Police officers are often shielded from liability, and the case is even harder to make for a suspect who had been resisting arrest.

Lack of Tracking and Requirements

According to The Marshall Project, there are about 15,000 dogs employed by law enforcement agencies ranging from sniffing out drugs to searching for missing children. However, there is no nationwide database for tracking police dogs. There is also no way of tracking who has been bitten or attacked, or the number of bites that have occurred from police K-9s.

There are also no requirements for dog handlers, and the lack of regulation has experts worried. Georgetown University Law Professor Christy Lopez recalled speaking with a Black teen in Ferguson, Missouri, who had been curled up in a closet after a police K-9 severely bit his arm. “It’s just sort of the Wild West when it comes to these dogs,” Lopez claimed. “In Ferguson, I realized this was not a thing that needed to be reformed, [but] it was a thing that needed to end.”

Patrick McKean, a dog trainer for the Mobile Police Department in Alabama commented on the topic of K-9 attacks: “A dog bit, it’s a violent encounter. The dog’s hurting somebody. We’re not going to just do that for any little reason.”

For the Leon County Sheriff’s Office, they have a section on their website explaining their K-9s and how their training is, “constant and consistent.” However, the information from the study shows that each state handles K-9s differently.

However, reform may need to be on the horizon. The Police Executive Research Forum, which is a prominent think tank for law enforcement, has released information on the guidance on policies and practices for patrol canines. You can review the entire document here.

Calls for Reform

According to VICE, police dogs have the ability to evoke public sympathy and adoration at a time when trust in police officers is at an all-time low. Police dogs go to schools to meet with students, and bring in tons of loving comments on police stations’ social media.

In one recent case in Canada, an Indigenous man was killed during a tragic firefight. The 29-year-old had been involved in a manhunt with police for outstanding warrants related to unspecific crimes. However, after he was shot and killed by the police, it was the K-9 dog that also died in the incident that received national praise.

Now experts are calling for reform, claiming that police dog deployments are the cause of brutal, unnecessary attacks. Law professor Christy Lopez provided the following comment regarding police K-9s:

“It’s such a metaphor for the way we whitewash policing. It’s as if we’re gaslighting ourselves. Why are we willfully ignoring that we pay our police department to buy and train…dogs to attack humans?”

In addition, Lopez argued that police K-9s have been used to “grossly, disproportionately” attack people of color, and inflict lifelong injuries, often on people who have only committed minor crimes.

A study from the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine showed that there were 33,000 visits to the emergency room from 2005 to 2013 as the result of police K-9 bites. The data found that the patients were predominantly male, with the majority being Black men.

Katie Bennett, a lawyer who has dealt with several cases involving police K-9 dogs, said, “basically [the dogs] are indiscriminate weapons. They’re not telling the difference between suspects and someone taking the trash out.”

Example Case

A routine traffic stop led to a man in Gainesville losing his eye after an encounter with a police K-9. Terrel Bradley, 30, was pulled over for an unspecified traffic violation around 10:40 pm on July 10th, 2022. Supposedly the officer told Bradley he saw “contraband” through the driver’s side window, and saw Bradley reach down toward the floor.

Bradley was told to exit the vehicle for a pat down, which he agreed to. When officer Andrew Milman requested to search the vehicle, he struck the officer with his elbow and took off running. After a full inspection of the car, the officer found a gun, ammunition, marijuana, and Bradley’s license. Police were able to search Bradley’s name and found that he was a convicted felon, so they called for backup to search for the missing suspect. Police claim they brought in a K-9 due to Bradley’s previous felony conviction.

When the police finally caught up with him, Bradley had been hiding in a set of bushes in Eden Park. Police only described what happened as the K-9 “apprehending” Bradley, but one officer said, “officers observed injury to the driver and EMS was immediately requested and responded.” From the attack by the police K-9, Bradley suffered bites to his body and hands. In the most extreme part of the attack, the K-9 pulled the suspect’s eye out of its socket.

Bradley was released from the hospital and booked into Hillsborough County Jail, where a judge ruled that he could go home while awaiting his trial. He is currently facing charges including two counts of firearm possession, possession of fewer than 20 grams of cannabis, and resisting an officer.

After images of Bradley’s state surfaced to the public, protestors have started to demand to see the bodycam images from the responding officers. In addition, they are demanding that the police department refrains from pursuing suspects who do not pose an immediate threat to other citizens, fire the K-9 handler and the officer that conducted the traffic stop, and prevent the K-9 from going out on the job again.

There were over 100 residents of Gainesville who joined the protest over the weekend, all wearing eye patches in solidarity with Bradley. The protestors are arguing that Bradley faced a punishment that didn’t fit the crime he was suspected of.

Danielle Chanzes, an activist who helped organize the protest told VICE, “Terrell didn’t feel safe, so he ran. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a Black man in America to run from police in a situation like that.”

Only July 25th, 2022, the police chief of Gainesville Police Department decided to suspend the K-9 who was involved in the incident. Police chief Lonnie Scott has extended the review process from the K-9 attack for the department’s Internal Affairs Division. The process can take up to 90 days.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

Getting pulled over for a traffic stop can be extremely stressful, even if you haven’t done anything wrong. The main thing to remember is to stay calm and respectful to the police. If you feel like your rights have been violated, you should contact a skilled defense attorney in your area. Getting accused or arrested for a criminal charge can lead to harsh consequences such as expensive fines and jail time. Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have experience representing clients across Florida, and will work tirelessly to build your case a strong defense. For a free consultation call (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message.

Written by Karissa Key

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