L.A. Finds Mixed Results in Curbing Police Dog Bites
A recent standoff in Sierra Madre showcased police dogs at their best: A pair of Los Angeles County sheriff’s canines shrugged off knife wounds to drag a suspect from his hiding place, pulling him out without injury to the man or the officers.
The suspect was taken into custody without further incident. And the injured dogs, Ronnie and Dax, got rawhide bones from the city government in return for their derring-do.
Unfortunately, police dog cases don’t always conclude that way. All too often, they end as they did for Dathan Brown, who was mauled by a dog in 1991 while a sheriff’s handler watched. Or for Manuel Nevarez, who was attacked by a dog in 1992 even though deputies never warned him that he might be bitten if he did not give up.
“The level of carnage,” said Donald W. Cook, a leading plaintiff’s lawyer in police dog cases, “can be incredible.”
For more than a decade, police in Southern California have unleashed dogs on suspects, inflicting injuries at rates far higher than those associated with batons, tear gas or even guns. Faced with complaints and lawsuits, many police departments have modified their use of the dogs. The sometimes conflicting approaches that have resulted are reflected in the philosophies of Southern California’s two largest law enforcement agencies, the Sheriff’s Department and the LAPD.
Today, civil libertarians and plaintiffs’ lawyers credit the Los Angeles Police Department with a historic turnabout in its use of police dogs. They are harder on the Sheriff’s Department. But after years of making little progress toward reducing dog bites, the department is also registering modest gains, soon-to-be released statistics suggest. Its critics say the progress is overdue, but conceded that they see subtle signs of improvement in an area that has long been the source of bitter debate.
In the late 1980s, LAPD dogs were biting more than 300 suspects a year, causing more injuries than all other forms of force combined. In 1989, for instance, the thousands of LAPD officers who worked regular patrol duties arrested about 300,000 people and sent about 70 of them to the hospital. The 15 or 16 who worked in the department’s canine unit made about 650 arrests, and sent 100 of those to the hospital--more serious injuries than the entire rest of the LAPD combined.
Moreover, critics charged that the Police Department was using the dogs with abandon in poor and minority neighborhoods, dispatching them more frequently in those areas and injuring far more black and Latino suspects than white suspects.
“The racial part of this story was astounding,” said Constance L. Rice of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, who said some officers referred to black suspects as “dog biscuits.”
Other elements of symbolism were equally chilling. One of the region’s leading suppliers of police dogs was a kennel in Riverside named “Adlerhorst.” German for “eagle’s nest,” “Adlerhorst” was the name of Adolf Hitler’s retreat, and although that kennel never supplied the LAPD with dogs, it did sell dogs to other police agencies and its name outraged lawyers and others.
Amid mounting criticism, the LAPD began to reform its canine policies in the early 1990s. Although some dispute the effect of those changes, Cook and others say bites are down from 350 a year to about 35.
“It was so easy to stop,” said Cook. “That tells you something about the problem.”
The Sheriff’s Department, meanwhile, has resisted one of the changes that the LAPD adopted, the shift from a so-called “find-and-bite” policy to a “find-and-bark” approach. Sheriff’s officials concede that their dogs bite more frequently than the LAPD’s, but say the policy has little to do with that.
“They are trained to bite at movement, and they will bite if the suspect moves. That’s true anywhere,” regardless of a find-and-bite or find-and-bark policy, said Sgt. William Thompson, a veteran of the Sheriff’s Department canine unit.
Rather than the dog policy, Thompson and other sheriff’s officials attribute the discrepancy with LAPD to other factors: the different terrain that the Sheriff’s Department covers, the size of its geographic area, the fact that its canine unit operates 24 hours a day--as opposed to LAPD’s, which works only at night--and the nature of the crimes it combats with dogs.
Specifically, the LAPD sends dogs in cases where the alleged offense is automobile theft, a crime the Sheriff’s Department does not consider serious enough to routinely warrant dogs. The result, according to the Sheriff’s Department: The LAPD is able to nab a large number of suspects who give up easily, pushing down that department’s bite rate and making the sheriff’s look artificially high by comparison.
Cook and other critics of the department are unconvinced. Although they say they have seen some signs of progress in recent months, they insist that holding down the number of dog bites is neither an issue of dog training nor of geography or deployment criteria. The solution, they insist, is supervision of the officers who handle the dogs.
“This is never a problem with the dogs,” Cook said. “It’s a cop problem.”
The LAPD: Coming to Grips
Launched in 1980 by then-Police Officer Donn Yarnall and a colleague, the LAPD’s canine unit was intended to give police officers a new tool in confronting a dangerous and frightening type of suspect: one who flees and hides rather than surrenders.
At first, the department moved cautiously, approving creation of a two-officer, two-dog unit as a pilot project based in the LAPD’s West Bureau.
Within four months, the unit had doubled in size and expanded citywide. Officers were run ragged, sometimes working 30 to 35 hours at a stretch to keep up with the demand for their services.
Although the unit’s services were in high demand, some observers say that over the years it grew insular. Handlers stayed for long periods of time. They developed such expertise in using the dogs that some did not take kindly to efforts to rein them in. Citizen complaints became more commonplace.
By the late 1980s, Police Department leaders and critics agree, the canine unit was woefully lacking in supervision. It was inflicting hundreds of bites a year, its officers were involved in a disproportionate number of shootings, and its critics accused it of racism. Within the LAPD it had attracted an almost mystical image. Some called it a cult.
“Everyone was getting concerned about it,” one high-ranking police official now acknowledges. “You need good supervision out there, and we didn’t seem to have that.”
According to Police Department sources, changes began to occur in 1990 or so. A number of dog bite victims had filed complaints by then, and the Police Commission was expressing concern about the continuing allegations of abuse.
With complaints on the rise and litigation mounting as well, Police Department officials in the elite Metropolitan Division, where the canine unit is based, quietly launched an effort to clean house. Lt. Peter Durhman, a highly regarded officer, was empowered to make changes, and he did. Some dogs were taken away from their handlers, some handlers were moved out of the unit and the department finally codified its procedures for using dogs into a written manual.
In 1992, Police Chief Willie L. Williams came to the LAPD from Philadelphia, where dog handlers had become the subject of fierce public outcry in the mid-1980s. He arrived in Los Angeles just in time to see his new department battling similar allegations.
Under Williams’ leadership, the LAPD shifted to “find-and-bark” and began routinely warning suspects in English and Spanish that dogs were hunting for them and that they might be hurt if they did not surrender.
Dog bites, which had been dropping for more than a year, plummeted. Where previously one in four apprehended suspects was bitten, suddenly fewer than one in 10 were injured--reducing the LAPD’s so-called “bite rate” to under 10%. By 1993, a few hundred bites a year had dropped to a few dozen.
LAPD leaders take credit for that progress, but not all officers agree that the changes in the early 1990s are responsible for the drop in bites.
Asked what significant changes were wrought during that period, Yarnall turned to a supervisor and asked for permission to answer. Getting it, he responded: “Nothing has changed. Our basic philosophy is the same. Our standards have always been the same.”
Instead, he attributes the drop in injured suspects at least in part to the publicity the canine unit received. In the wake of grisly press reports, Yarnall said, suspects suddenly began giving up when the dogs arrived on the scene.
Cmdr. Scott LaChasse, who helped implement some of the changes to the unit, said he believes a number of factors contributed to the decline, but he echoes Yarnall’s belief that shifting attitudes of suspects had something to do with it.
“It’s like a lot of other things we do: As people found out about the dogs and what they could do, they became less inclined to challenge them,” LaChasse said. “These days, there’s healthy respect by some of the bad guys out there.”
Attention Shifts to Sheriff
By most accounts, the Sheriff’s Department today faces some of the same pressure that focused on the LAPD five to six years ago: Attempts to reduce dog bites have stubbornly resisted reform efforts, critics have mounted a campaign against the department and the county is facing a lawsuit over the department’s use of the animals. That suit is far more sweeping in its scope than previous cases.
“Although the department prides itself on not having lost a canine case at trial, it has settled a substantial number of canine cases for significant sums,” according to last June’s semiannual update on Sheriff’s Department reforms, prepared by Los Angeles lawyer Merrick Bobb and his staff. “The use of canines carries a high risk. The [Sheriff’s Department’s] relatively high bite percentage, as compared to a similar canine program in another police department [the LAPD], convinces us that more direct supervision and different training of handlers should be seriously considered.”
That recommendation and the stern language of the report partly reflected the concern that measures taken to date have not yielded many positive results.
For the last two years, despite the urging of Bobb and others, the department has been unable to register significant improvement in holding down the number of suspects who are bitten by its dogs. The number has hovered at 40 to 50 a year, not many more than the LAPD, but significantly more given the fact that sheriff’s dogs find far fewer suspects than the LAPD’s.
Since 1992, the report notes, about 24% of the suspects located by sheriff’s dogs have ended up getting bitten. That’s more than twice the percentage for the LAPD.
But that report is from last summer and sources say the Sheriff’s Department has chipped away at those numbers in the last six months, its bite rate dropping to 20.5%. That represents a promising development for the department, although it has also come at some cost: Arrests by the canine unit also have dropped during that period, sources say.
Kenneth Bayless, an admired chief in the Sheriff’s Department, was recently assigned to the department region that includes special enforcement and the canine unit. Bayless said sheriff’s officials have beefed up supervision in the unit and are working to intensify training, both in an effort to bring down dog bites.
Some of the lawyers who brought suit against the LAPD and now use its record to put pressure on the Sheriff’s Department say they are heartened by the changes they see afoot in the county canine unit.
“When the litigation heated up, the word filtered down,” Cook says. “The message was ‘Stop it.’ ”
Sheriff’s Department officials declined to comment on the litigation but say they have always tried to keep bites to a minimum. The department now issues public address announcements in English and Spanish before unleashing the dogs. In them, suspects are warned that they may be hurt if they do not give up. Many do, although some choose to take their chances.
And there are signs that the Sheriff’s Department may even be taking some lessons from its friendly rival, the LAPD. A high-ranking sheriff’s official recently spent several days observing the LAPD canine unit and some officials have looked at the LAPD policies and practices to see if they have lessons that could be applied to the county agency.
“We were very impressed,” Bayless said of the LAPD. “We thought they had a very sound program.”
But there are problems on the horizon. The litigation remains unresolved, and some Sheriff’s Department observers are concerned that the steps taken to lower the bite rate in recent months may render the canine unit less effective.
And then there are the suspects themselves.
“Three strikes” and other strict sentencing laws have dramatically raised the stakes for people who commit crimes and get caught. As a result, some officials at the Sheriff’s Department and LAPD worry that more offenders may begin choosing to try to elude the dogs rather than give up when warned that the animals are about to be set loose.
That causes some to worry that dog bites may be soon be on the rise. Hopeful but guarded, officials at both departments say they are mindful that their units have been the source of controversy and are determined to squelch any new increase in dog bites.
“We’re always striving for zero,” Yarnall said. “That’s hard to achieve, but that’s always our goal.”