K-9 units are tied to America’s racist origins. (Getty Image)

The Violent, Racist History of K-9 Units

Police dogs were invented by slavers. Now they’re used by cops.

Earlier this summer, a white police officer in Gainesville, Florida, pulled over a Black man for allegedly running a stop sign. The cop began a search of his car, but before the search was complete, the man made a run for it.

The officer found a handgun under the driver’s seat as well as identification proving the man, 30-year-old Terrell Bradley, had been charged with a felony for armed robbery 12 years ago. The cop called for backup, which came swiftly: several officers, including one equipped with a police dog.


The cops, with the help of the K-9, eventually found Bradley an hour later. But rather than take him into custody, officers sicced the dog on Bradley, even though he’d already surrendered to them. Bradley suffered bites to his hands and body and was left permanently blind after the K-9 latched onto his eye and pulled it out of its socket.

The brutal encounter in Florida was deemed a one-off and resulted in the department suspending the K-9 that attacked Bradley

But K-9 attacks are not uncommon. According to the Marshall Project, 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. A 2019 study found that of the 32,951 people who were taken to the emergency room for a K-9 dog bite between 2005 and 2013, 95 percent of them were male and 42 percent of them were Black.

These facts shouldn’t be surprising. The police K-9 is undoubtedly tied to America’s racist origins, since well before their use became synonymous with race-based violence.


“It’s a much larger issue with a long history that goes back well into the time period of slavery,” professor Charlton Yingling, who teaches Caribbean, Latin American, and Atlantic history at the University of Louisville, told VICE News. “Not to say that issues from the era of slavery are exactly the same as they are now in the era of the carceral state, but there are certain rhymes that still kind of resound today.”

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.

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.”


But when slavery ended, the use of attack dogs didn’t. Sellers found a new kind of customer: prisons.

“It went from being a private enterprise in which there were literal advertisements in newspapers for packs of dogs that chase runaway enslaved people, to being used then to enforce state power,” Yingling said. “It’s an important transition in this whole development of the modern police state, and how dogs were holdovers to some degree from this long path to the present.”

When slavery ended, the use of attack dogs didn’t.

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.” 


The rise of civil and racial unrest in the South pushed police to double down on using dogs for crowd control. In 1957, Baltimore became the first city to formally adopt the modern version of the K-9 unit, and St. Louis followed suit the following year.

“When you talk about the militarization of police, it’s not just tanks and helicopters and automatic weaponry,” Parry said. “It’s also the dogs. The way that they're trained is exactly the way they’re trained for military service.”

By this time, the German shepherd was the most popular kind of police dog, and is still most commonly associated with K-9s today. The breed was used against those held captive in concentration camps during World War II.

“When you talk about the militarization of police, it’s not just tanks and helicopters and automatic weaponry. It’s also the dogs.”

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.”


It wouldn’t be until the 1960s, after local and national news outlets published photos of police dogs attacking civil rights protesters, that K-9s became more widely associated with race-based violence.

But while there was widespread, lasting outrage over the treatment of Black people by police during these crucial years, very little criticism was directed at the use of dogs itself.

Plus, a dog’s reputation as cuddly, good-natured, and a loyal “best friend” to humans has been advantageous for departments and has helped suppress their problematic, racist origins.

“You can connect it to the general perception of how police propaganda campaigns have rendered officers as superheroic civil servants who do no wrong,” Parry said. “Police dogs have also benefited from the exact same type of propaganda, in that you see dogs as companions, rescuers, and friends.”

Hitler often referred to the German shepherd as the canine equivalent to the Aryan race.

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.


The case was eventually settled in 1995, with the LAPD changing policy around K-9s to a “find and bark” model over the more aggressive policing strategy they’d used previously. But as is the case in most instances of K-9 brutality, the problem was treated as a one-and-done issue after the number of dog bites dropped in the years that followed.

Now, the use of police dogs in law enforcement is finally being acknowledged as archaic by some experts in North America. Last year, attorney and former investigator for the U.S. Department of Justice Christy Lopez, and Ottawa-based criminologist Darryl Davies were just a few who told VICE News that doing away with K-9s might be the best option for departments in favor of more fair, and less-punitive policing.

Parry agreed with them.

“Particularly with the racialized racist results, I simply don’t find it a great idea to stick a dog onto another person,” he said. “The more that I’ve read and done research about this, the less inclined I am to support having a dog be used in any capacity against a person, no matter how non-threatening the dog is.”

“The first excuse everybody makes is, ‘It’s not the dog’s fault.’ This is true in that they’re conditioned to act in a particular way,” Parry continued. “But that is also used as a way to casually dismiss the root of the problem, which is that dogs are still present in police work.”

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