Time to Cancel Police Dogs, Experts Say

Police K-9s are “grossly, disproportionately” used against people of colour, inflict gruesome lifelong injuries, and often attack people who have committed minor crimes.
July 6, 2021, 11:00am
An aggressive German shepherd behind
German shepherds often serve as police K-9s. Photo by Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

Last month, the small northern Alberta town of High Prairie lowered its flag to half-mast and a police department posted a touching social media tribute after an Indigenous man was killed during a tragic firefight

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Facebook post and photo collage garnered more than 1,100 shares, 4,200 likes, and hundreds of comments calling the incident “heartbreaking” and offering “love and prayers.” 

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But none of it was for the 29-year-old man police shot, after chasing him down for outstanding warrants related to unspecified crimes. It was all for a 5-year-old police service dog named Jago, who was also killed during the two-day manhunt during what police called an “exchange of gunfire.” 

Police dogs evoke public sympathy and adoration at a time when trust in law enforcement is at a record low

The four-legged cops are Instagram stars who visit schools and collect fawning comments on police department Facebook pages. Canada’s federal police service even holds contests for kids to name its K-9 recruits. When they die, the dogs are often mourned in elaborate public funerals

But their furry facade is unravelling as experts and civil rights activists call for an end to police dog deployment amid patterns of brutal, unnecessary attacks.

“Why are we wilfully ignoring that we pay our police department to buy and train dogs to attack humans?”

Christy Lopez, a law professor who investigated police departments in her role with the U.S. Department of Justice under Barack Obama, said the K-9 officers’ cutesy public image masks a broken system that is beyond repair.

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

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“We do not count either the cost or the benefit, and we do not listen to people who have been harmed. We believe these Instagram accounts of these cute dogs, and so we have a grossly upside-down sense of the costs and benefits of these K-9s.”

Lopez has found police K-9s are “grossly, disproportionately” used against people of colour, inflict gruesome lifelong injuries, and often attack people who have committed minor crimes.

An extensive investigation led by the Marshall Project last year examining more than 150 severe bites found almost none of the victims were armed and most were suspected of low-level, non-violent crimes. Some were innocent bystanders. Among those cases are an Arizona man whose face was bitten off, and a 51-year-old man who committed no crime but was mauled to death in Alabama when a dog tore an artery in his groin. 

Civil rights attorney DeWitt Lacy has represented more than a dozen victims of police dog bites. His clients are often poor, sometimes homeless. Their injuries vary from small puncture wounds to torn flesh and broken bones.

A woman he’s currently representing, Laureen Frausto, was sleeping in an abandoned West Covina, California, post office two years ago when she woke up to a police dog mauling her arm, according to a lawsuit Lacy filed. 

The dog allegedly dragged her more than 40 feet while officers asked her questions, before they slung her mangled arm behind her back to cuff her. Frausto underwent four surgeries, lost function in her left arm and hand, and was left with permanent deformities as well as “extreme psychological distress” and a paralyzing fear of dogs and police, the suit says. The case prompted the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California to call for an end to police dog use. 

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“That’s a circumstance where, in my mind, they give the dog a reward for searching—‘Here, I’ll let you have a chew toy.’ And that’s despicable because no one should be treated like that. But these things happen with such frequency, especially with homeless persons, that at some point we have to ask why,” Lacy said.

“I couldn’t sit there and watch a dog chomp on somebody’s arm for 3 minutes and not be very, very disturbed by it. But some of these officers can.”

By contrast, Minneapolis-based civil trial lawyer Katie Bennett has dealt with several cases where a K-9’s handler panicked and tried unsuccessfully to pull the dog back when it bit a victim. 

“You can see they couldn’t get the dog off. They tend to pull instead of doing the proper release, and it makes the injuries way worse,” she said. 

Desiree Collins, a Black woman who Bennett represented, sued the city of St. Paul after a dog latched onto her elbow as she was taking out her garbage in the morning while police were out looking for someone else. 

The dogs “are not telling the difference between suspects and someone taking the trash out”

Bennett also helped litigate a successful $2 million lawsuit for Frank Baker, a Black man who was not suspected of any crime when he was brutally attacked by a police dog in 2016 while a cop kicked him in the ribs. In May, St. Paul police officer Brett Palkowitsch was sentenced to six years in jail for the attack.

“Basically (the dogs) are indiscriminate weapons,” Bennett said. “They’re not telling the difference between suspects and someone taking the trash out.”

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A Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine study counted 33,000 emergency room visits due to police K-9 bites in the U.S. between 2005 and 2013 and found patients were predominantly male, with Black men particularly overrepresented. 

The history of police K-9s in the U.S. is irrefutably racist—dogs were deployed to chase slaves and later to quell civil rights protests in the 1960s and 70s.

Some police departments, like St. Paul, Chicago, New Orleans, Oakland, and Seattle, have recently moved to severely restrict police dog use in light of public criticism. 

Not only can K-9s be dangerous, but they are actually pretty bad at some of the jobs they’re best known for. Studies show drug-sniffing dogs are accurate less than half the time and tend to “alert” their handler of illegal drugs to get rewarded, whether or not drugs are present. Even though dogs tend to act according to their handlers’ biases, their dubious alerts give cops justification to search suspects. A  Washington state police dog even died in 2015 after inhaling meth during a drug bust. 

Lopez said using drug-sniffing K-9s amounts to a “racially biased coin toss.” 

Bob Eden, who has 40 years of dog training experience and worked for decades as a K-9 handler, said the problem lies in unregulated and often woefully inadequate training. 

While Canada requires officers to go through 12- to 16-week training programs led by other police K-9 handlers, the U.S. is more laissez-faire, with some police departments relying on civilian vendors offering two- to three-week programs.

“I have seen dog handlers on the road, in some states, with as little as 10 days of training,” Eden said. 

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Still, he’s a strong believer in police K-9 work. 

Eden said a handful of negative incidents are giving police dogs a bad name, and for every excessive attack, thousands of dogs are deployed without biting. There are three confirmed fatal police dog attacks in the U.S., compared to more than 1,000 cases of people dying after being tasered. Dog bites, however, are proportionally far more likely to require hospitalization.

K-9s can track down dangerous suspects and de-escalate situations; Eden said he once responded to a call where a homicide suspect was daring officers to shoot him and refusing to follow orders. When Eden threatened to release his dog, he said, the suspect got down on his knees and surrendered immediately. 

“What doesn’t come to the foreground is what those other deployments prevent,” Eden said.

A properly trained police dog with a responsible handler should be able to bite, hold, and release on command without causing excessive injuries. And the animal’s speed and sense of smell gives it distinct advantages over its human counterparts for tracking potentially dangerous suspects. 

In a 1999 experiment where suspects were hidden in buildings of various sizes, trained dogs were not only able to track them down more successfully than human-only teams, but got the jobs done between four and 20 times faster.

“When you pick up a guy within half an hour of a crime, as opposed to spending months and maybe hundreds of officers trying to locate somebody that committed a murder, for example, there’s no comparison,” Eden said.

Data Eden shared with VICE World News from a confidential database shows 7.4 bites occurring for every 100 police dog deployments. His data shows white people are proportionally bitten more frequently than Black people overall. His database draws from 1,500 police agencies across North America, representing about 4,500 dogs, but race is not always recorded.

Darryl Davies, a criminologist and Carleton University professor, believes K-9s play an important role in policing but should only be deployed when “absolutely necessary.” Davies said an officer should be held accountable by law if their dog viciously attacks someone, but acknowledged officers are rarely held accountable for violent actions to begin with and the legal system is stacked against victims. 

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Sometimes, police use a victim’s instinctive retaliation against their beloved canine partner as justification for shooting the victim

But it’s not just humans at risk; it’s also the dogs.

While some are stabbed or shot on the job, a 2015 examination of almost 100 dogs killed on duty found the most common cause of death was being left in hot police cars.

Lopez, who for decades tried to figure out how to fix police dog use, decided when investigating the Ferguson police department in 2014 that it was a pipe dream.

Following the police killing of Michael Brown, one of her investigators spoke with a Black boy who was attacked by a police dog while he was curled up in a ball on the floor inside a closet of a vacant building. The boy had been hiding because he was skipping school. The investigation also found everyone the Ferguson department’s five K-9s were recorded to have bitten over a four-year span was Black. 

“We are allowing what I consider to be an inherently dehumanizing use of force,” Lopez said.

“There’s just no way to fix it. There’s not even a reason we would want to fix this. This is just something that we should stop doing.”

Follow Kevin Maimann on Twitter.