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Videos Reveal A Close, Gory View Of Police Dog Bites

Nov 20, 2017
Originally published on February 1, 2018 12:11 pm

Donald W. Cook is a Los Angeles attorney with decades of experience bringing lawsuits over police dog bites — and mostly losing. He blames what he calls "The Rin Tin Tin Effect" — juries think of police dogs as noble, and have trouble visualizing how violent they can be during an arrest.

"[Police] use terms like 'apprehend' and 'restrain,' to try to portray it as a very antiseptic event," Cook says. "But you look at the video and the dog is chewing away on his leg and mutilating him."

Cook says the proliferation of smart phones and body cameras is capturing a reality that used to be lost on juries. "If it's a good video," he says, "it makes a case much easier to prevail on."

The new generation of videos is capturing scenes of K9 arrests that are bloodier and more violent than imagined by the public. An NPR examination of police videos shows some officers using biting dogs against people who show minimal threat to officers, and a degree of violence that would be unacceptable if inflicted directly by the officers.

The latest high-definition body cameras worn by police provide especially clear views. Cook collects these videos on his computer, and what strikes him is the degree of bloody violence the dogs can inflict.

"You can do through a dog attack what you cannot do yourself," he says. "You can't do it with the baton, because the baton is always going to be swung by a cop. The Taser is always going to have its trigger pulled by a cop, but with the dog, it's the dog that did it, not the cop."

Police dog-handlers reject this characterization. They say dogs are a valuable method for subduing dangerous suspects while protecting officers from harm. They point out that a dog can be called back after it's been unleashed — unlike the deployment of a Taser or the firing of a gun.

And there are use-of-force rules. Most departments require police to shout out clear warnings before a dog is released.

Spokane Police K9 Officer Dan Lesser, an experienced dog handler and trainer, says he weighs several factors before releasing his dog. "What is the risk of allowing this guy to escape armed with a gun? What kind of damage, what kind of mayhem is he going to cause if we allow him to escape, and go car-jack a car, and go kill somebody else?"

"It happened so fast"

But the threshold for releasing dogs appears to be lower in many of the recent videos. Sometimes, police send the dog in response to threats that seem more hypothetical than real.

In one case captured on body cameras in 2015, San Diego police officers used a dog on a naked man who was high on LSD and wandering around a neighborhood in broad daylight. He refused a command to turn around, and within seconds they released the dog. The biting lasted 52 seconds. It caused lasting injuries — as well as an eventual settlement from the city.

In the incident report, officers cited the threat posed by the man's balled fists, and the presence of stones on the ground, which he might have picked up to use as weapons.

The quickness of police to release K9s was also a factor on June 24, 2016, in St. Paul, Minn. On that night, cops responding to a report of an armed black man happened across Frank Baker, sitting in his car near his apartment building. Baker, who's African-American, seemed to fit the general description, though he was unarmed. They ordered him out, and he says he complied.

"I put my hands up and I took about seven or eight steps, and as soon as I turned around, the police let the dog out on me," Baker recalls. "It happened so fast ... not even ten seconds and I'm on the ground."

A police dash camera captured the scene. As Baker writhes and screams, police kick him and shout, "Don't move!"

One of the arguments for K9s is that they're a "pain compliance" tool: the bite is supposed to convince a suspect to hold still.

Baker finds that theory astonishing. He says as the dog tore into his leg, following police commands was the last thing on his mind.

"I didn't hear what they were saying," he says. "My mind just went blank."

In fact, in many videos, the release of a dog appears to escalate the violence of an arrest.

"You just look at the dog as the source of pain and you do everything you can to address that pain," says Seth Stoughton. He's a former police officer, now an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina who studies police use of force. "Those shouted commands — you'll deal with that later, when the pain stops."

And yet suspects who kick and try to shake the dog off are often accused of resisting arrest.

K9 handlers say dog bites tend to be quick — 10 to 15 seconds is a figure that gets cited frequently.

Longer bites

In many of these videos, though, the biting lasts much longer. In a recent incident captured on a smart phone, you can hear the outrage of bystanders at how long it's taking San Diego police to get their dog to stop biting a suspect's arm.

Privately, handlers often talk about having trouble getting a dog to "out," or open its jaws. It's a concern that comes up on discussion boards, and in this K9 training video.

Sometimes the dogs bite the police. In 2016, California's workers compensation system recorded 190 law enforcement officers reporting on-the-job injuries involving police dogs.

Occasionally, an attacking dog simply stops responding to commands. That happened this past April in Georgia, when a K9 attacked its handler, Houston County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Slate Simon. The dog bit down to the leg bone and would not release, forcing the officer to shoot and kill the dog.

"He was just doing his job," Simon told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Simon attributed the incident to "mistaken identity."

It's possible there was a deeper problem. Simon's K9 was a Belgian Malinois, which in recent years has become the most popular breed for police and military work. It looks something like a small German Shepherd, but is more nimble and less prone to certain health problems.

But some Belgian Malinois may come with a dangerous genetic flaw.

Researchers at the University of California Davis have identified a gene in some dogs of that breed that's "associated with owner reports of seizure, 'glazing over' behaviors, episodic biting behaviors, and general loss of clarity."

UC Davis sells a $50 test for the gene, something breeders and trainers could use to screen out potentially problematic dogs before they become police K9s.

But the genetic test has few takers. In fact, all the trainers, handlers and K9 associations contacted by NPR said they were unaware of a "glazing over" gene, and most dismissed the potential problem.

If there is a pattern of such behavior, it would be exceedingly difficult to detect. National statistics are bad to non-existent, especially when it comes to frequency and severity of K9 bites. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the number of dog bite injuries involving "legal intervention" to 4,105 in 2015. That's up from 2,311 in 2001. But that's just an estimate, based on surveys of emergency rooms.

Without good data, public perception may prevail

There isn't even an accurate count of the total number dogs working in law enforcement. The world of police K9s is decentralized, with competing regional and national associations, and it can be defensive.

"It's a tight-knit community," says Charles Mesloh. He's a former police K9 handler who now teaches Criminal Justice at Northern Michigan University. He's done research on K9s and use of force, but he says it's almost impossible. "When an outsider is trying to collect actual data, they become immediately suspicious."

Mesloh wishes there were better data, because he believes in the effectiveness of K9s. He says the mere threat of releasing a dog can avert violence.

"You get a lot more suspects surrendering without any incident at all," Mesloh says. "The same suspect that rips off his shirt and asks for more cops to come to the scene so they can have a battle royale, immediately will surrender when the police dog gets there. I've personally seen that five or six times."

But that effectiveness can be overshadowed by gory videos of what happens when the dogs are released — especially those in which police give suspects little chance to surrender, or the biting lasts longer than necessary.

Many K9 handlers are scrupulous about issuing warnings; Jim Gibson is a sheriff's deputy with lengthy K9 experience, both as a handler and a trainer. He believes in making repeated, clear warnings, and he takes releasing a dog as seriously as firing a weapon.

"You get down, look right between his ears like you would a gun sight," he says, to make sure the dog is looking at the right person. Because that's the person it will bite.

It's a level of restraint that's missing from some of the more shocking videos of K9 apprehensions. In the absence of good national statistics, those videos may end up determining the public perception of police K9s. It's a worrying thought for many handlers.

"I'd like to think that as long as people are reasonable, like anything, that we would still have this tool to use," Gibson says.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The growing use of video cameras is showing what really happens when police dogs are used in arrests. Police use the term canine apprehension. In practice, that often means dogs subdue suspects by biting them. Police argue that those bites are quick and usually cause minimal injury, but NPR's Martin Kaste says body cam videos are telling a different story. And a warning - parts of this in-depth report may be disturbing to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: It's easy to see why so many police love it when the canine units show up. The dogs can do amazing things - for instance, at this training event at a racetrack outside Seattle.

DAN LESSER: What we're going to be doing is what's called a felony stop. So we'll have a bad guy in a car with two patrol cars behind him.

KASTE: That's Dan Lesser, a canine officer and trainer from Spokane, setting up an exercise for the dogs.

LESSER: We'll get the driver out, secure him in the second car. And then we'll actually have the dog - will be deployed to jump in through the driver's side window.

KASTE: There's even a high-speed chase version of this.

LESSER: He's going to make contact with the car, and he's going to spin it around.

KASTE: And then as soon as that car comes to a screeching stop, a dog is sent in.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Stop there. I'll send the dog.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Stop there. I'll send the dog.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Fass, fass that guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Attaboy.

LESSER: It's much easier. It's safer for us to be able to send that dog up there to clear that car than it is for us just to walk up there blindly and stick our head in there and look.

KASTE: But as you watch these dogs training, the one thing you can't help but notice is all the screaming. The cops who are playing the role of suspects are wearing protective padding, but every time a dog bites them, they put on a show of fake agony.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Screaming).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good, boy. Get that guy. Suspect, let me see your other hand.

KASTE: It's supposed to help stimulate the dogs to keep biting as hard as they can. And when one of the handlers has trouble getting his dog to release, the fake screaming just goes on and on and on.

LESSER: It usually doesn't go for that long. I mean, for the most time that I've ever seen a dog been on a contact before is probably 10 to 15 seconds.

KASTE: Most canine handlers will tell you this - that bites are usually quick - 10 or 15 seconds. And they also usually make this point. If a bite gets bad, it's usually the suspect's fault.

LESSER: The suspect dictates how long the dog stays on and what happens. So if you have a suspect where the dog comes in and contacts the bad guy and the bad guy starts kicking and screaming - be that much harder for the handler to get the dog off.

KASTE: Yeah, but that's just human instinct, right (laughter)...

LESSER: Not - no.

KASTE: ...Got a dog biting you?

LESSER: No. Most of the time when a bad guy gets bit - most of the time, they're - they actually lay there, and they follow commands.

KASTE: Really?

LESSER: Mm-hm.

KASTE: That's long been the standard line in the canine world. The problem is this version is now running up against a new reality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Why can't you call your dog off? Why can't you call him off?

KASTE: Videos online from cellphones and police body cameras showing real canine arrests up close. Here's a recent example - San Diego this past summer, a man already on the ground, his hands cuffed and behind his back, trying to show compliance, and still a police dog is biting his arm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Are you kidding me?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I'm comfortable. I'm comfortable.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Hey, get back. Get back.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I'm comfortable.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: You guys got three guys versus one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Get back.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: You can't get the dog off.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Hey, get back now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Unbelievable.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Screaming).

DONALD W COOK: It has a psychological impact far different and far more terrifying than any other use of force that a cop uses.

KASTE: This is Donald W. Cook. He's a Los Angeles lawyer who's claimed to have filed more dog bite lawsuits than anybody else. He also admits to have lost most of them because of what he calls the Rin Tin Tin factor. Juries just like dogs. But now with the new generation of videos, his chances of winning have gotten better.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: (Screaming).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Roll onto your stomach and stop fighting.

KASTE: He's collecting the videos on his office computer. Some are from the dog handlers' own body cams. And the high-def images are almost too clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Roll onto your stomach. Give me your hands.

COOK: Yeah. Now, you wonder why he's not rolling onto his stomach? He's got a dog ripping open his leg.

KASTE: Cook says videos like this demolish the police argument that all a person has to do when bitten by a canine is hold still. An especially gory case in point was another incident in San Diego, this one in 2015...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Looks like you're pretty scraped up.

KASTE: ...When officers sicced a dog on a naked man. He'd been wandering around high on LSD. When officers reach him they tell him to turn around, and he gets defiant, stomping his foot. A moment later, you hear an officer yelling fass. Canine handlers use German commands with these dogs. Fass means grab or bite.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Turn around.

DAVID ACEVES: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Turn around.

ACEVES: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: Tase him.

ACEVES: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Fass, fass, fass, fass, fass.

ACEVES: (Screaming).

KASTE: In an instant, the dog has the naked man down on the ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ACEVES: OK. (Screaming).

KASTE: This goes on for 52 seconds. He writhes in the dust, trying to shield his leg as it gets shredded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ACEVES: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Put your hands behind your back and the dog will stop biting you. Put your hands behind your back.

ACEVES: You know, I feel, like, kind of helpless. You know, it's kind of maybe like a Chinese trap. The more you tug, the more it's going to rip you open in this sense.

KASTE: And that's the man that video, David Aceves. He suffered major injuries and ultimately got a settlement from the city. He's baffled by the idea that police thought a biting dog was the best way to get him to comply.

ACEVES: It's like saying, OK, hold steady. We're going to saw through your leg real quick. And it's going to be for about 52 seconds, but don't move.

KASTE: Generally, police are not supposed to use force like this unless they have reason to believe that a suspect poses a serious threat. But in practice, that standard has a way of getting lowered. Donald Cook says the dogs are a tempting way to apply excessive force.

COOK: You can abuse people with the dogs. You know, you can't do it with the baton because the baton is always going to be swung by a cop. The Taser is going to always have its trigger pulled by the cop. But with the dog, you know, it's the dog that did it. It's not the cop.

KASTE: The San Diego Police Department did not respond to NPR's request for an interview about this. They did release numbers showing that at the time of the Aceves incident their overall use of dogs had been climbing steadily along with the number of people being bitten. So is something similar happening nationwide? It's hard to know.

CHARLES MESLOH: There is no national reporting system.

KASTE: That's Charles Mesloh, a former K-9 handler and now an academic who studies canine use - or used to. It's hard because he has so little data to work with. The world of police dogs is decentralized, and you can't even get a count on how many canines there are.

MESLOH: You know, rough estimate, there's probably somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 canine teams operating in the United States.

KASTE: Nobody's collecting the kind of national numbers that would give us a better picture of how these dogs are used. It does appear that emergency rooms have seen an increase in the number of bites caused by police dogs over the last 15 years. That's according to CDC estimates. But we have no national count of how often dogs bite unarmed people or how often police have trouble getting the dogs to let go. And if there were such numbers, they might very well back up what the canine officers say, that most bites are justified and quick and rare. Mesloh says people need to keep in mind that often all it takes to arrest someone is the threat of a dog.

MESLOH: The same suspect that rips off his shirt and asks for more cops to come to the scene so they can have a battle royale immediately will surrender when the police dog gets there. And I've personally seen that five or six times.

KASTE: But in the absence of statistics, what we have increasingly is these videos of the times when canines do bite. And they're building up on YouTube. Canine handlers say these videos give people the wrong impression. But Seth Stoughton says that shouldn't mean resisting the presence of cameras. He's a former cop, now a law professor specializing in the use of force.

SETH STOUGHTON: If there's things that we cannot justify to the public, then maybe that's a clue that we shouldn't be using them. Maybe they're effective. But if the public reacts so negatively against their use, then it's not worth it.

KASTE: Which is exactly what the canine handlers fear, that in an era when videos have already challenged so many aspects of American policing canine apprehensions may be next. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.