The Dark Side of K9 Policing

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has reinstated a lawsuit against the San Diego Police Department based on an incident in which a police dog attacked a woman who was asleep in her office. The dog was trained to enter a building and bite the first person it encountered no matter who it was or what they were doing. The court had “little trouble concluding that the intrusion on [the victim’s] Fourth Amendment rights was severe.” (Read the article in the San Diego Union Tribune.)

San Diego certainly isn’t the only police department that trains its dogs to do this. It is no secret that no matter what kind of great education the dogs of this type initially receive (paid for by taxpayers ultimately), cops throughout the country turn their K9’s into monsters because that’s how the officers like them. When a resident is brutalized unnecessarily, the police agencies hide behind the immunities granted for legitimate law enforcement activities under the dog bite statutes of most states. For example, subdivision (a) of California’s dog bite statute makes dog owners fully liable for dog bites but also provides a subdivision (b) which states as follows:

(b) Nothing in this section shall authorize the bringing of an action pursuant to subdivision (a) against any governmental agency using a dog in military or police work if the bite or bites occurred while the dog was defending itself from an annoying, harassing, or provoking act, or assisting an employee of the agency in any of the following:
(1) In the apprehension or holding of a suspect where the employee has a reasonable suspicion of the suspect’s involvement in criminal activity.
(2) In the investigation of a crime or possible crime.
(3) In the execution of a warrant.
(4) In the defense of a peace officer or another person.

 

Fortunately for California residents, there are two exceptions to the exception:

(c) Subdivision (b) shall not apply in any case where the victim of the bite or bites was not a party to, nor a participant in, nor suspected to be a party to or a participant in, the act or acts that prompted the use of the dog in the military or police work.
(d) Subdivision (b) shall apply only where a governmental agency using a dog in military or police work has adopted a written policy on the necessary and appropriate use of a dog for the police or military work enumerated in subdivision (b).

 

In my cases against police in California, I have delved into the written policies on appropriate use of a dog, and have been shocked at what I have found. Let’s start with the agency responsible for setting the educational and training standards for officers, namely the Commission on POST (which stands for “police officer standards and training”). (See https://post.ca.gov/home.aspx.) The Commission’s materials about the use of canines are silent as to reasonable force in connection with deploying a dog.

After the vacuum existing at POST, we have the local police forces themselves. Their written policies range from the clearly unreasonable (such as San Diego’s) to quite reasonable. Either way, one finds that the officers do what they please with the dogs in terms of training and operations.

To make matters worse, the handlers also cover up for the dogs when things go wrong. In one of my cases, for example, a canine officer invited a lost tourist into his car for a ride to his hotel, whereupon the dog in the car brutally attacked the man. My initial strategy was to settle the case because liability was obvious, but the police defended against it. When I filed the lawsuit and used formal methods to learn more about the dog, I learned that it savaged a fellow police officer about a month after mauling the tourist. In other words, the police knew that the dog had gone rogue but were covering it up. Soon after I let on that I knew the truth, the case settled for an appropriate sum of money. 

Police dog litigation is distasteful to me because I come from a family of cops, judges and prosecutors, but such cases are necessary for the protection of the public. When the dog or its handler use unreasonable force against people, the incident warrants the same measure of justice as any other dog attack.