As far back as the 16th century, when Spain owned what is now Florida, European nations used “bloodhounds” to attack and intimidate Indigenous populations and to prevent slaves—mostly Black Africans—from fleeing. Despite prominent 18th-century British abolitionists arguing that attack dogs were a primary example of how slavery was a depraved institution, the U.S. adopted the same strategy in the 1800s, knowing how effective bloodhounds were for European colonizers. Slaves who managed to make it to free states or Canada often wrote about the horrors of being chased by dogs or seeing other Black people mauled by dogs.“The dogs used on Bayou Boeuf (a Louisiana plantation) for hunting slaves are a kind of bloodhound, but a far more savage breed than is found in the Northern States,” Solomon Northup wrote in his 1853 narrative 12 Years a Slave. “They will attack a negro, at their master’s bidding, and cling to him as the common bull-dog will cling to a four-footed animal. Frequently their loud bay is heard in the swamps, and then there is speculation as to what point the runaway will be overhauled.”
Police-dog bites cause more hospital visits than any other kind of use of police force, and the vast majority of the people affected are Black.
Some Jim Crow-era sheriffs in smaller, Southern U.S. towns openly talked about using dogs to further their racist goals in the late 19th century. Sheriffs even held public demonstrations showing how effective dogs can be—and used Black people as bait.“These exhibitions will include a Black man who would be given a 20-minute head start, and then the dog would be sent after him,” Parry said. “If the dog completed the mission, usually by isolating him to where he couldn’t move, that dog was considered usable by police.”Law enforcement agencies began patrolling Black neighborhoods in smaller Southern towns with dogs. Black residents filed complaints about what was a clear example of overpolicing, but cops justified bringing in the dogs because of a supposed disproportionate amount of crime in those parts of town—which was often completely unsubstantiated.“You have to remember: At this point, the use of dogs in this way was very deeply ingrained over generations of Black folks,” Parry said. “The backlash was just expressed more once the units made their way into larger cities.”
When slavery ended, the use of attack dogs didn’t.
Hitler often referred to the German shepherd as the canine equivalent to the Aryan race. While experts don’t know how much Germany’s use of the dog affected U.S. police departments’ decision to use them, there was a similar affinity for this particular breed, according to Parry.“If you read police magazines and development of the canine unit, they’ll even say the German shepherd was selected because to them it looked like a police officer,” Parry said. “The shape of its face, the color, the color pattern that its fur had, the sleek look that it held, the way it ran, its aggression. It was considered a perfect specimen for police work.”
“When you talk about the militarization of police, it’s not just tanks and helicopters and automatic weaponry. It’s also the dogs.”
Combined with the fact that their keen senses made them an invaluable tool in the war on drugs during the 80s and 90s, the reputation of the police dog has withstood criticism and even legal scrutiny. In 1991, for example, the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP filed a lawsuit in state court against the LAPD for using the dogs with excessive force when it wasn’t warranted. The numbers were ugly, with attorneys mentioning some 900 Los Angelenos bitten by dogs between 1990 and 1993, 90 percent of whom were Black and Hispanic.
Hitler often referred to the German shepherd as the canine equivalent to the Aryan race.
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