A BITING CONTROVERSY : Los Angeles Police Dogs Bite Hundreds of People Every Year, Many of Them Never Charged With a Crime. Officials Say the Dogs Are Just Doing Their Job. The Victims Say They Are Instruments of Terror.
THE VIDEOTAPE HAS A FAMILIAR QUALITY, JERKY LATE-NIGHT IMAGES OF LOS ANgeles Police Department uniforms gathered around an unarmed young black man flung to the ground, squirming in pain. This time, however, there are no flailing batons or discharged Tasers. Instead, a police dog’s teeth bite into the man as he screams. The tape has already shown the German shepherd finding the man under an overturned couch in a dark back yard, the couch tumbling as the man leaped up and did a terrified dance with the dog locked onto his leg, the man obeying staccato commands to get back on the ground and show his hands.
Now, flat on his stomach, arms outstretched, whimpering, the man is dragged backward with each yank of the dog’s collar by its police handler. When the shepherd’s jaws finally unclench, another police officer flies into the frame to drop his knee hard between the man’s shoulder blades and snap on handcuffs. Then, as the man lies moaning “my leg . . . leg . . . my leg,” a male voice off-camera is clearly heard to say: “I love it.”
“What do you think?” Don Cook asks me when the TV screen blackens in his law office high above Wilshire Boulevard. It is nearly two months before CBS News will show these images to the nation, rousing the Los Angeles Police Commission to announce a review of LAPD police dog practices, but Cook already senses the implications. In an era when nothing seems to matter much until there’s live tape, Cook has just managed to dig up some, and he obviously considers it fresh ammunition in the war that he and his partner Robert Mann wage against what they consider to be the misconduct of Los Angeles K-9 units.
With their current allies--the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the civil-rights law firm of Litt, Marquez & Fajardo--Cook and Mann launched their latest offensive last summer and fall, co-filing class-action civil-rights suits that accuse the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department of using their animals, through “systematic policies and practices,” in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
“Hundreds of people,” the complaints charge, “particularly African-Americans and Latinos, have been viciously mauled and grievously injured by police dogs, without the police having probable cause to believe such individuals pose an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury, the constitutional standard of all other uses of deadly force.”
If these charges and those video images, which Cook eventually helped feed to Geraldo Rivera as well as Dan Rather, seem like a treatment for “Rodney King: The Sequel,” in fact, they are part of a more complicated picture. Consider this: the taped biting was neither staged nor secretly shot. It was an actual arrest filmed by an LAPD film crew for a local cable TV show on police techniques, and it came with a moral: “Next time, don’t run from the police and hide,” the young man, a 14-year-old car-theft suspect not subsequently charged, is told as we see him sitting in the squad car looking at his chewed-up shin.
The video image of Rodney G. King’s beating on March 3, 1991, so clearly showed out-of-bounds police conduct that Police Chief Daryl F. Gates himself said it sickened him. By contrast, toward the end of the police dog video, Sgt. Mark Mooring, a founder of the LAPD K-9 program and the officer whose shepherd had done the biting, steps up to the microphone and says he feels great. He sums up: “Another suspect goes to jail, which is what it’s all about.”
Clearly, the philosophical division about police dogs in Los Angeles is wide. On one side stand those who are sounding alarms in the courts. “The dogs are instruments of terror,” say Mann and Cook, who want their use severely restricted. On the other side are the LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department, each warding off about 30 K-9 lawsuits charging negligence or abuse. Neither department will discuss specifics of any case, but both have official positions that boil down to this: We’ve done nothing wrong.
“The dogs are used to search and find people who we believe are felons or armed misdemeanors, and they’ve run away from police. A suspect who conceals himself and refuses our commands to surrender, I expect him to get bit,” Lt. Pete Durham, head of the LAPD Metropolitan Division K-9 unit, told me last May before the class-action suits and the CBS report. Since then, his department and the city attorney have had “no comment,” while Chief Gates has assured the public that the LAPD’s dogs “are the sweetest, gentlest things you’ll ever find,” and “only bite if attacked.”
“I’m going to be honest, the K-9 thing has a tremendous amount of liability for us,” says Capt. Dan Burt, who oversees the Sheriff’s Department’s K-9 unit. “And the reason is one group of attorneys in this county apparently has made it their life’s work to do away with K-9 operations.”
Burt says he thoroughly reviewed the recent history of the K-9 unit when it became his responsibility two years ago. He found some supervisors “providing inadequate or no training to canine handlers,” so he beefed up the training and made all the handlers responsible to one person. While “we probably could have been doing a better job,” he says, he found nothing “going on that was particularly bad.”
Police dogs bit an estimated 1,000 people in Los Angeles County during the last three years--more than anywhere else. The 18 dogs in the LAPD unit bit about 900 people, and the Sheriff’s Department’s 15 dogs bit about another 150. In contrast, during the same period, the 47 police dogs working Washington, D.C., bit 215 people. Last year, Baltimore’s 41 dogs bit 30 people, and Houston’s 19-dog K-9 unit recorded a single bite serious enough to require a night’s hospitalization. In recent years, suspects caught by the Los Angeles departments’ K-9 teams were bitten between a third and half the time, a very high “bite rate” by national standards, according to Hubert Williams of the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Police Foundation.
With more bites and bite-related lawsuits than anywhere else, “police dog cases decided here will set the standard for the rest of the nation,” says lawyer Kathy Jensen, who recently won an $80,000 settlement in a police misconduct case against Anaheim’s K-9 unit. “Every K-9 unit in the country,” brags Cook, “has our civil-rights suits sitting on their desks.”
These days, Los Angeles is being looked to as the hottest testing ground for questions that arise whenever police make use of a living weapon.
THERE IS NO QUESTION THAT THE DOG IS AN EXTRAORDINARY LAW enforcement instrument, one that could have been devised on spec for Los Angeles’ geography of crime. Sent into a midnight sprawl of bungalows or warehouses, the dog can use its ears to hear a hiding suspect’s heartbeat and breathing, and its nose, said to be a million times more sensitive than a human’s, to zero in on the fugitive. Compared to any human, a dog will find suspects not only far faster but more often, says Sheriff’s Capt. Burt. “I’ll put my money on the dog every time.”
That a superb nose and ears also happen to come with powerful jaws is something that police departments around the country make use of differently. Some consider the dog’s job over after it has cornered a suspect and barked an alarm. When sent after a fleeing suspect, the dog is trained to knock him down with a quick bite if necessary and immediately let go. Under this policy of “circle and bark,” holding bites are allowed only if the dog or the officer is attacked. Otherwise, it is up to an officer to call the dog back and bring the suspect under control.
Others departments, including the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, have adopted more aggressive policies. In Los Angeles, K-9 handlers are required to give a loud warning before sending a dog to search a building or area. Then, once the dog is released and finds a suspect, it is trained to latch onto an arm or other part of the body and not let go unless called off by the handler. This approach is commonly called “find and bite”; the LAPD terms it “handler control.”
Police forces in most mid- and large-size U.S. cities have K-9 units, but there is no survey that indicates which policy is the most often employed. Departments on either side argue that their approach reaches the best balance between respecting suspects’ rights and officers’ safety.
Burt defends find-and-bite adamantly. “When a dog bites a human being it causes tearing of the flesh, bleeding,” he acknowledges, adding that he is comfortable with the policy because canines are only called out for felony arrests. “We’re looking for very serious suspects.” Like LAPD officials who have testified that find-and-bark makes arrests too risky, Burt explains: “We don’t want the dog to say, ‘OK boss, here’s the guy, I’m sitting here looking at him and barking at him.’ ”
He believes that having the dog attack can actually lessen the violence of a police collar. “The deputy would have to take the guy into custody at gunpoint. He may end up shooting the guy. I will take a felon who has been captured with a couple of fang marks in his arm any day over one with shotgun pellets in his heart.” Burt, an open-faced, balding man whose speech is continuously soothing, suggests that a police dog might, for example, have subdued Rodney King more quickly, lessening his injuries.
Find-and-bite, says Burt, also helps save officers’ lives. He points out that although his unit has never lost a dog, some have been choked, shot or stabbed; LAPD dogs have died in the line of duty. “I’d rather invest a $5,500 police dog,” he says. “If we lose the dog, we’ve lost, in essence, a member of the handler’s family but not some wife’s husband. I can feel good about that, I really can.”
Officials in circle-and-bark canine units from Merced to Baltimore to Tallahassee, Fla., say their policy hasn’t kept them from making arrests and it makes liability suits scarce. Sgt. Duane Pickel, trainer for Tallahassee’s canine teams, instructs dozens of other forces in circle-and-bark. His six-dog unit, which accounted for six bitings while helping make more than 200 arrests last year, has not been sued in two decades. “We do everything we can to avoid using our dogs in physical apprehension mode,” Pickel says. “That’s not what they’re here for.”
The bite vs. bark controversy makes headlines in the police journals these days. To retired Sheriff’s Deputy Van Bogardus the debate is an old one that has torn at him since he was chosen in 1980 to be the first K-9 handler ever trained in the Sheriff’s Department. “If I could go back to when I heard they were looking for dog handlers,” he says. “I would turn them down.” Bogardus, now retired, is a big, mustachioed man who speaks with a taut forthrightness. He sits in the kitchen of his Pomona tract home and confides publicly for the first time his “sadness and remorse for having anything to do with that goddamn situation.”
At first it seemed a dream assignment, a chance to pioneer an elite unit and expand on his SWAT team experience. When he was chosen, Bogardus steeped himself in dog theory, wrote about it for police journals, helped train others and became regional president of the U.S. Police Canine Assn. In keeping with policy, his dog Marco was finding and biting a lot of suspects, and Bogardus was spending time in hospitals waiting for his arrestees to have their wounds stitched.
One day, an emergency room doctor remarked that the bitten suspect had wounds similar to a gunshot victim’s. Bogardus, who had been a Marine in Vietnam, pondered that. “I’ve seen war injuries, and I said, yeah, that makes sense. I’ve never heard the biting force of a dog’s canine teeth estimated at less than 1,000 pounds per square inch. A 9-millimeter bullet is going to hit you with about 300 foot-pounds of energy. The end result of (a police dog bite) is sometimes broken bones, torn tissue, ligaments, tendons. You’re going to collapse veins, cause bleeding, and that’s not to mention the aspect of shock, which is physically and psychologically induced. It requires extensive medical treatment to fix these guys.”
At the academy, where he graduated first in his class, Bogardus had learned rule No. 1: Use only that force necessary to bring the suspect under control, never more than the credible threat of violence that you face. Anything else is excessive force, prohibited by the Fourth and 14th amendments.
Bogardus knew his way up the “ladder of force.” Only when a suspect ignores demands to submit may an officer climb up a rung to “controlling force,” such as arm or wrist-twisting. Next comes “injuring force,” throwing a struggling resister to the ground or striking joints and muscles with a baton. Finally there’s “deadly force,” gunfire or all-out beatings allowed only in situations where an officer’s life or “great bodily injury” is clearly threatened.
But where did Marco’s teeth fit on the ladder? The official answer from the LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department is that a police dog bite ranks just below a baton swat, on the mild side of “injuring force.” Bogardus couldn’t reconcile this with what he’d seen and what the doctor had told him about treating bites like bullet wounds. By his reading of the ladder, dogs could do great bodily injury and they should bite only in situations warranting deadly force. Yet he claims today that the vast majority of persons bitten by his unit’s dogs were quietly hiding, and once found, could have been taken into custody without a scratch.
When he argued with his superiors that the “find-and-bite” policy institutionalized unnecessary force, Bogardus says he got nowhere. Eventually, a sergeant in charge of the K-9 unit “poked me real hard in the chest and told me that I would work in compliance with sheriff’s policies and directives, or I would suffer the consequences. I replied that neither he nor anyone else could command me to commit a crime (by) putting the dog on people.”
Bogardus claims a few resentful superiors tangled him in other controversies to trip up his career, and eventually banished him to “professional death” on a lonely San Gabriel Mountains beat. After he was diagnosed with a serious stomach ailment--"there was so much conflict in my life that I started eating my guts up over it"--Bogardus took a service-connected medical disability retirement in 1988.
“You know,” Bogardus says, walking me out to my car and stopping beneath the American flag that juts over his driveway, “the Sheriff’s Department is basically an excellent, progressive law-enforcement organization. They’ve just missed this one.”
His assertion that Los Angeles police dogs often bite people who don’t prove to be dangerous is borne out in department statistics. Records show that when LAPD K-9 teams are called out, most suspects are arrested on burglary and theft charges, and 85% of those arrested have no weapon. Similarly, of 272 suspects bitten by Sheriff’s Department dogs over a five-year period ending in 1990, 268 were captured unarmed. In Sheriff’s Department files are many reports that indicate that deputies encourage dogs to bite suspects they consider no threat. A Deputy Faulkner, for example, reported on Oct. 21, 1988: “Susp(ect) was motionless and non-combative. Dog stayed with susp(ect) barking and holding susp(ect). I don’t know how to get him to bite. Any suggestions?” The word “bite” is underlined twice.
Capt. Burt explains that in a third of all cases in which dogs are used, suspects are reported to be armed. And, he says, Sheriff’s Department dogs have to be trained to bite even passive people, because any felon could pull a weapon. Doesn’t that violate an unarmed suspect’s right to due process? Such judgments are made in the heat of an arrest, answers Burt, and “out of all the people in the criminal justice system we (deputies on the streets) are probably the most ill prepared to make those kinds of decisions . . . yet we’re given the toughest job.”
Burt, like his LAPD counterparts, prefers to call K-9 unit dogs “tools” for controlling people, rather than weapons. He maintains that the average bite is “an innocuous thing. I’ve carved turkey on Thanksgiving and injured myself worse than some bites.” He says that he has seen all medical reports on Sheriff’s Department bite cases, and is satisfied that nothing is out of line.
Deputy City Atty. Mary E. House, who defends the LAPD against lawsuits, agrees. She claims to have reviewed the medical reports involving police K-9 units, and according to her research, the reports show that at least 80% of the police K-9 bite injuries required nothing “more than a Band-Aid.”
Every bite is unique, says Burt, explaining that no systematic study of dog bite severity has been done by his department. However, for one of their cases, attorneys Cook and Mann requested 101 medical records of all people bitten over a three-year period by Arco, the dog handled by Sheriff’s Deputy Philip Geisler. In the 54 records the county could find, almost every person had been bitten more than once, 33 spent two or more days in the hospital, nearly half required stitches or “incision and drainage” wound care, and one person suffered “right-nerve palsy.” Non-police dog bites, “don’t approach the severity of these,” says Dr. Peter Meade, an intensive-care surgeon at Martin Luther King Jr. General Hospital in Los Angeles, who has seen the records.
Attorneys Cook and Mann keep their own thick photo album of K-9-inflicted wounds. Dozens of snapshots show people holding out an arm or leg, displaying raw redness where skin and sometimes muscles have been torn away. A few are stomach-churners, like the one of Charles Dennis, a black man arrested by a Sheriff’s Department K-9 team and now in prison for burglary. Part of his nose is gone and his face looks as if he walked into a whirring blade.
The pictures, Burt points out, are deliberately edited to show only the worst that police dogs, some belonging to smaller Los Angeles area departments, have done. The pictures, according to Cook, show the seriousness of bodily injury that can happen whenever police dog meets suspect.
Whether that makes an attacking dog excessive force in all but the most dangerous of circumstances, however, is something that the courts have not clearly resolved. So far there are only two applicable precedents--one for each side. A Florida state jury found that the City of West Palm Beach allowed its police dogs to bite so often and so seriously that they violated citizens’ constitutional rights, a verdict upheld in 1989 by a federal appeals court. And, in a case involving a dog that had discovered a burglary suspect hiding under a car, bitten him on the throat and killed him, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1988 upheld a decision exonerating a Nashville, Tenn., officer of abuse. The court found “no indication from the evidence that (he) intended (the suspect) to die or suffer serious bodily harm.”
IT WAS THE PERFECT GREEN SECLUSION OF THE BACK YARD, THE high fences and steep slope closing off the lot, the swimming pool set in a pocket of palms and ivy, that sold Kevin Ray and Bob Robinson on their new Hollywood Hills home. They were lovers who wanted a life together and when, in the spring of 1990, they leased with an option to buy, they considered their paradise earned.
“This is as nice as it gets. This area. You hear the birds. You feel real secure in the hills. You totally feel secure,” Ray says. “I was in the prime of everything I’d worked so hard for,” says Robinson, an accountant in his late twenties. Ray, darker, sparer, a bit older, sells advertising space in the gay press.
Ray wasn’t particularly disturbed by the helicopter clattering overhead one afternoon that May. Curiosity carried him to the front door, where he looked across the street and saw men in uniform searching the hillside. When Robinson came home from work they walked out to the patio; he put his arm around Ray and they savored a sense of having made it up and out.
“The next thing I know,” says Robinson, “I am on the ground with this dog. It just tore me down to the ground, absolutely defenseless.”
A German shepherd was biting into Robinson’s right leg, shaking it furiously.
“And then I look over and I see four or six cops coming with their guns drawn,” Ray says. “What flashed in my mind was, OK, now they’re about to shoot me dead.” Instead, according to both men, the officers drew back while Robinson as calmly as possible demanded over and over that they “get this dog off me immediately.”
“I was wondering, maybe it’s a vicious wild dog,” says Ray. “Why don’t they shoot the dog?”
The dog, named Volker, was a member of the LAPD. Though Officer Daniel Bunch several times ordered Volker to stop biting Robinson, the dog would not. Finally, according to Ray and Robinson, Bunch walked over, gripped the dog’s collar and detached Volker’s mouth from Robinson’s bloody leg. When the ambulance arrived, Robinson says he was made to sign a promise that he would pay for it. Ray remembers asking the officers to write down names and badge numbers. Less than half did. Robinson and Ray never heard from the LAPD about medical bills, the reason for the attack, anything.
This is the story Ray and Robinson tell 16 months later sitting on the same patio. Robinson says it took an excruciating month to recuperate from the gashes closed with dozens of stitches, that pain and bad dreams persist along with the purple scars.
Theirs is a traumatized distrust of the police one rarely hears in this city’s poolside gardens. On his way home that evening, Robinson had given his address to officers parked at the end of his street, and they’d waved him through. Eyes in the police helicopter could have seen him and Ray together in the back yard. How did Volker get in? Ray and Robinson fear that the police sicked the dog on the couple just because they are gay.
Robinson is suing the LAPD through Mann and Cook; under a rule regarding cases pending, the LAPD has declined to comment about what happened that afternoon. If Robinson’s account is accurate, clearly something frayed at the edges of official canine policy that day. And an innocent person, not the suspect police wanted, found himself in the path of a ready-to-bite dog.
Jose Ricardo Rivera, a 22-year-old Mexican immigrant who lives with his brother in Van Nuys, was sitting in an Encino park on July 21, 1989, reading an English lesson when an LAPD dog leaped onto him and started biting his arms and legs and the back of his head. “I was fighting for my life. When I opened my legs to try and kick the dog, that’s when he bit my testicle,” says Rivera, adding that he never heard a K-9 announcement. Seventeen seconds after the biting began, officers showed up and called the dog off.
“It did some damage on my emotions. It left marks on my body. When you don’t have any marks, you feel more confident,” Rivera tells me. Dogs inhabit his nightmares, and though his torn scrotum has healed and his sperm count tests normal, he says, “after what happened, I haven’t had any relations with a woman, so I can’t tell you whether it feels good or bad. It worries me.”
A Spanish-speaking officer, Rivera says, apologized for the incident--the police had been looking for two black males. According to Rivera’s lawyer, Fred Glantz, dog handler Kerry Anderson and other officers involved have admitted in a deposition that “the dog just got too far out in front of them.”
Last year, Sheriff’s Department K-9 teams reported at least seven accidental bites. The LAPD will not release its accidental bite statistics. Police dogs here and around the country have bitten the wrong people who were too intoxicated, mentally troubled or sound asleep to heed any warning. Two years ago, in Palm Beach County, Fla., a K-9 German shepherd searching a vacant house tore up a a homeless woman named Laurene MacLeod. Palm Beach sheriff’s deputies say they called out two warnings before letting the dog in. MacLeod, unfortunately, was sleeping off a deep drunk. Fifteen hours later, she bled to death in a hospital.
Wandering homeless in a South-Central industrial zone just after nightfall on Dec. 16, 1988, Michelle Nunley says she went to sleep under a piece of sheet metal and dreamed a dog was gnawing on her. She awoke to find it true. The leg wound inflicted by LAPD Officer Douglas Roller’s Rottweiler, Keno, permanently scarred Nunley, not one of two male theft suspects sought by police. The city attorney’s office successfully fought her claim for damages by asserting that all procedures had been followed correctly--a helicopter had loudly zoomed overhead, Keno had barked, and Roller had shouted before sending his dog into the darkness where Nunley lay.
Sgt. Donn Yarnall, who began LAPD’s K-9 program and is considered its leading authority on police dog use, was asked, “Did Officer Roller permit his dog to attack and bite Michelle Nunley?” He answered: “Officer Roller was doing a search. Ms. Nunley’s actions (or), actually inactions, caused the bite. It was her choice.”
Ultimately, the jury rejected Nunley’s claim; the incident was ruled an accident, and the department not liable. In December, Nunley’s lawyers, Cook and Mann, persuaded a Superior Court judge to grant a new trial, partly on the basis that the CBS-aired videotape gave new evidence about LAPD police dog practices.
UNTIL RECENTLY, POLICE DOGS HAVE FOUND THEIR WAY INTO THE public eye more often through tales of valor than tragedy. Every year, three or four accounts of canine bravery run in local newspapers. When an LAPD official announced the retirement of Duke, “the most successful canine” in California history, instrumental in arresting 370 felons, including four murderers, and responsible for savings of 26,000 human work hours and half a million dollars, a Times headline saluted the “Most Dogged Cop on L.A. Force.”
But some representatives of black and Latino communities, where dogs are dispatched most often, have begun painting K-9 teams as villains rather than heroes. “If you used the dogs the same way in the Anglo community,” asserts Bill Lann Lee, western regional counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, “there would be tremendous outrage.” Most LAPD K-9 teams are deployed, and the most biting incidents reported, at the 77th, Southwest and Newton divisions, all centered in predominantly minority communities. And in cases where race was reported by K-9 officers, blacks and Latinos made up more than 97% of dog-bite victims, a Times analysis of more than 6,400 LAPD K-9 reports revealed in July. Eighty-four percent of all people bitten by Sheriff’s Department dogs are minorities, according to Capt. Burt.
This racial skew is, of course, at the heart of the class-action civil-rights suits. The departments counter any charges of racism by saying that they simply put their dogs where crime is high. But although whites commit nearly a quarter of all burglaries and auto thefts in the Los Angeles area, virtually all LAPD burglary suspects bitten are not white. Lt. Durham of the LAPD posits that whites tend to steal in suburban areas too far from K-9 units and the many backup cars required for a thorough search.
Black and Latinos make up the majority of people who have filed lawsuits charging Los Angeles K-9 units with outright brutality, some saying that officers mete out “street justice” by letting their dogs torment suspects, even after a surrender.
“While the dog was biting me, they were questioning me,” Ruben Angel Martinez, 16, told the Daily News after sheriff’s deputies caught him breaking into an electronics store in 1988. Mario Avila, arrested for a 1989 East L.A. burglary that he later confessed to, claimed in a deposition that while a dog was “eating” his leg, deputies told him “burglars get treated like this. We should just let the dog tear your whole leg apart.” Sheriff’s Chief Raymon Morris denied such misconduct occurred.
At the Nunley trial, Sgt. Yarnall was asked if he’d ever heard of or seen handlers use their dog to punish a suspect. “Never,” testified Yarnall. “You know the term ‘street justice’ . . . maybe it’s nice to put in a novel. But you know, I don’t see any of that on the street, whether it be with dogs or whether it be with police officers . . . things are so controlled today that there is no way that a police officer would be able to administer street justice and get away with it. It just doesn’t occur.”
Charles Brugnola disagrees. There’s something about a police dog that brings out the best or the worst in a police officer, says the former K-9 handler for the Hawthorne Police Department. In early 1981, Hawthorne sent Brugnola, who had worked with patrol dogs in the Air Force, to train with Yarnall and the LAPD. Soon after graduating from Yarnall’s tutelage, Brugnola and his female German shepherd, Jinx, were so successful that they were often called outside Hawthorne to help other departments, including the LAPD, on searches. Many times, Jinx would root out someone who could then be taken into custody easily, Brugnola says, but his peers would want him to “let her bite the ‘dirt bag.’ The thinking was, what are they gonna do, put the dog up on the stand?”
Brugnola understood the dynamic. Pursuit pumps up adrenaline and anger. But “letting emotions take hold, that’s how you lose your job, or worse, kill someone,” Brugnola says, and he worried about the emotions in himself and fellow officers that the power of a police dog seemed to fuel. After a few years on K-9 patrol, he made it a policy not to let Jinx bite anyone she found, even though colleagues, even superiors, implied that made him a wimp, Brugnola says. What they valued was an “alligator” dog.
Even circle-and-bark dogs are trained to bite on command, Brugnola points out. And because a police dog is not a robot, its sense of when to bite on its own--and when not to--must be reinforced through handler training, day after day. “The personality goes down the leash,” Brugnola says, citing a maxim of K-9 veterans--a dog is only as effective, and as humane, as its handler.
In hundreds of arrests over a six-year career, Brugnola estimates that 90% of the time suspects gave up willingly as soon as they knew he had a dog; he rarely had to resort to ordering Jinx to attack. He has a theory about why the numbers of LAPD and Sheriff’s Department attacks are so much higher. “There are two kinds of personalities in every department, the more passive and the more aggressive. It’s usually split right down the middle, but the aggressive ones always seem to come out on top, to run the show,” he says.
Like Van Bogardus, Brugnola tells of confronting superiors over too many dog bites, being shut out, and eventually leaving with a stress-related disability.
Both men now sometimes testify as expert witnesses against local K-9 departments, which they say hasn’t lessened much of the stress in their lives. Brugnola claims the window on his car was shot out, and Bogardus says he has answered the phone to hear, “Hey asshole, why are you testifying against the county? You know you’re gonna get messed up, don’t you?” Recently, he moved to another part of the state.
When Brugnola testified against his alma mater in the Nunley case, Yarnall’s testimony “devastated” him. Yarnall had “drilled into our heads: ‘Maintain the integrity of the dog, maintain the integrity of the program. Don’t let your dog be out there chewing people.’ ”
In fact, according to Brugnola, Yarnall decreed circle-and-bark the official LAPD policy early on. Yarnall has testified that his unit abandoned circle-and-bark because it was too risky and people were being bitten anyway.
“ ‘This dog is not for attacking people,’ Donn would say,” Brugnola remembers. “ ‘This dog is for reducing man hours to search buildings and for finding suspects that would never be found. That is where its value is.’ That’s where I got all my ideas about no bite, from Donn.”
But Yarnall emphasized it’s the “drive-by shooting era” and said that although Brugnola was a nice guy, his idea that a more passive K-9 approach might work was a fantasy.
THE AIR IS WARM, THE lights of East Los Angeles twinkle beyond the edge of the large grass field where I stand waiting for a police dog to leap at me. At Capt. Burt’s invitation I am about to have a private demonstration. It begins with several deputies helping me on with my “bite” suit, the heavy toe-to-chin layer of jute that trainers wear and let dogs chew on in order to “build the bite.”
When I nod that I am ready, head trainer Deputy Kenneth Bickerstaff gives Kazan the order to attack. A split second later I’m flattened, the shepherd ferociously chewing on my padded forearm. I hadn’t expected to be knocked down, and suddenly, even in the most controlled of circumstances, I’m afraid. The dog’s face is inches from my own, intent on its grip. “It’s OK,” Bickerstaff says. He calls off Kazan, who obeys. “We have complete control of our dogs at any time,” says Deputy Geisler, standing nearby.
The K-9 officers want to persuade me that Bogardus and other critics of find-and-bite are wrong, so we walk over to a fake two-story house that they use for learning and practicing tactics. Pretend, they say, that a suspect is hiding inside. I’m to play point man as we enter the back doorway in search of him. I summon all the cop-show tactics I know, but soon Bickerstaff pops up and his cap gun sparks in the darkness. You’re dead, I’m told. Replaying the scene, this time they send in Kazan, who, in short order, finds Bickerstaff crouching behind a counter. The dog bites him on his protected arm and Bickerstaff gives up. “Now what if Kazan instead just sits here and barks?” Geisler asks. “The bad guy could just wait here and shoot you.”
Deputy Ken Lawrence spells out the lesson. “I’m not in the military, so far as I’m concerned, there are no acceptable losses. When I’m done working, I’m going home alive.”
Though his Belgian malinois, Arco, is not along this night, Geisler invites me to cruise with him and rendezvous with other K-9 teams if they are called out. Geisler has been described to me by Burt as “one of the finest handlers we have.”
We drive through depressed neighborhoods, pulling into the Stop Drive-In on Imperial Highway for a hot dog. While patrons give us steely stares, Geisler nods toward the Jordan Downs housing complex across the street. “I put you in those projects, how would you feel? You’d be scared, wouldn’t you? Because you don’t know if someone is going to shoot you because you’re a white guy in a black neighborhood. Society is weird.”
Insistently, all evening, Geisler’s theme is a police officer’s imperative of self-preservation. “Who knows when you’re going to come on some guy who says, ‘I’m not gonna go back to the joint, I’m gonna take a cop with me’? You don’t know what goes on in the mind of a bad guy.”
When I observe that the great majority of suspects bitten are unarmed and are being sought for less-violent felonies such as burglary and car stealing, he says, “A lot of attorneys say auto theft, that’s just like smoking marijuana. Well, that’s negative. Because you pull them over and find guns. They may use them against us, they may not. How many citizens are being shot on drive-bys, taken hostage? What are the cops gonna do? We’ve got our hands tied. All the cops are being sued. The bad guys know it. With all the publicity against us, they go, ‘Hey, cops aren’t gonna do anything, we’ll go on our spree now.’ ”
I ask him why so many of the people Arco bites are black or brown. “For the simple reason that there are more blacks and Hispanics doing the crimes. Look at who’s in the jails.” A K-9 request comes over the radio and we go to the scene of a possible burglary. As a handler makes an announcement and lets his dog into a darkened two-story home, Geisler stands with me on the lawn and says, “You’d have to search that house yourself, not knowing if someone’s in there or not.” There is no one there. Later he makes it a point to go to the scene of a drive-by shooting we’d heard about earlier that evening and show me the blood on the sidewalk.
I tell Geisler that I’ve seen some of the 62 bite reports he filed from 1988 through January, 1990, and that not one suspect was armed. He tells me of an incident, not included in those reports, when Arco was shot and wounded rushing a holed-up armed robbery suspect. Geisler traded shots with the man and killed him.
About a dozen people bitten by Arco have filed suits charging Geisler with excessive force and abuse. Ricardo Zuniga, a Salvadoran used-car salesman, says Geisler burst through his door and let the dog chew his wrist for several minutes while his children cried, his wife fainted and other deputies searched the house. Someone in his El Monte neighborhood had fired a shotgun, and they mistakenly thought it was his. Geisler is unwilling to talk about the incident because Zuniga is suing. (A jury later finds no misconduct, making Cook and Mann 0 for 2 in tried cases against Geisler.) I tell Geisler what he already knows, that Cook has called him a “racist and a vicious sadist.”
“I’m not a racist,” Geisler tells me, shaking his head. “And I’m not a sadist.” All his alleged victims, he says, are coached to lie. “Obviously, if a lawyer’s out there wanting to promote business, he has to direct these guys what to do. All they can do is say something to make money. That’s all it boils down to--who talks a better story.”
WHEN CAPT. BURT LOOKS at the videotaped LAPD K-9 arrest he sees solid police work. That the CBS’ report made it seem otherwise angers him. Echoing Gates’ reaction, he calls the segment, “one of the worst cut-and-paste jobs I’ve ever seen a major network participate in.”
“Basically, the dog is a great searching tool but a lousy weapon,” Bogardus sums up. He considers the video absolute proof of that.
“That tape,” Bogardus charges, “is little more than a spectacle for those policemen. They ask that guy to get on his belly and to be still. Can you see the terror in that person? That’s enough to sicken you. The dog is consuming him, eating him alive. Do you realize how difficult it is to stay truly still? Any movement is enough to stimulate that dog to (bite more).
“The handler obviously has no verbal control whatsoever of that dog. But to really put the olive in the martini, he goes up there and he yanks that dog away. Any good dog trainer knows the dog has to be taken straight up. He’s pulling that dog back, and those teeth are going to cause laceration to the flesh with greater force.”
On the tape, handler Mooring explains his dog attacked because “the suspect kicked his foot out at him, caught the dog in the nose. The rest is history, the fight was on.”
Bogardus disputes that there had to be a fight. “If you had only used the dog as a searching tool, you would have had the dog come up, alert, bark. You’d have called the dog back and announced, ‘Come out with your hands up.’ And if he doesn’t, then you escalate only to that force which is necessary, probably a firm grip. Nobody hurt, bad guy goes to jail, acceptable police practice.”
Instead, Bogardus charges, “they’re punishing. That’s the court’s job, to determine guilt or innocence. It’s only the police officer’s job to get the guy plugged into the system. “
Burt acknowledges that mounting lawsuits prompted him to increase canine monitoring by requiring a sergeant’s investigation of every biting incident and to tighten up training at the Sheriff’s Department. Last fall, after being hit with the twin class-action suits, both the Sheriff’s Department and LAPD reported lowered “bite rates"--suspects were bitten in one of four canine arrests.
Such changes haven’t caused Cook and Mann to let up in court, and they didn’t soften the political reaction that came from some corners after the LAPD biting played on CBS. Shortly afterward, not only did the Los Angeles Police Commission announce that it was reviewing LAPD K-9 practices, but City Council members Mark Ridley-Thomas and Joy Picus demanded that the council force the Police Commission to “stop all police canine activities,” a move the council is still pondering.
An end to K-9 units is more than even Don Cook is after. Used properly, he says, they are an invaluable police tool. Van Bogardus and Charles Brugnola say they worry their whistle-blowing will backfire by giving all police dogs such a bad name that they won’t be allowed to do what they do best--find people and protect officers.
During the civil-rights era, police dogs often were so ferociously deployed that public outcry closed down many K-9 units throughout the United States. “I can see that if we don’t make some changes today the same thing is going to happen again,” Sgt. Pickel of Tallahassee says. “We employ a dog for his nose, ears and eyes, but a lot of the departments employ a dog for his mouth. It would be a shame to have a few rotten eggs mess it up for everybody.”