Videos Reveal A Close Gory View Of Police Dog Bites

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, it makes a case much easier to prevail on,” he says.

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.

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