[News] When Police Violence Is a Dog Bite
news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Oct 2 16:21:43 EDT 2020
Police Violence Is a Dog Bite
By Abbie VanSickle, Challen Stephens, Ryan Martin, Dana Brozost Kelleher
and Andrew Fan - October 2, 2020
The tiny pink house was pretty much empty. And run-down and dark, since the
electricity had been shut off. Nevertheless, someone was trying to
burglarize it, a caller told 911 well after midnight on a Sunday in
The police called in a K-9 handler and his dog, Niko, to search 3809 Cresta
Circle. The dog lunged, found a man and bit down, according to court
records. It took almost two minutes for the handler to pull the dog off.
And before long, their suspect, a 51-year-old Black man, bled to death. The
dog had torn an artery in his groin.
The man was Joseph Lee Pettaway, and his family says he was no burglar. He
got in trouble for bad checks and served time years ago, but was now taking
care of his 87-year-old mother, Lizzie Mae, and helping to repair the pink
house in her neighborhood, they said; he had a key and permission to sleep
Joseph Pettaway’s sister, Jacqueline, comforts their mother, Lizzie Mae
Pettaway. Joseph died in July of 2018 at a home in Montgomery, Alabama,
after being bitten by a police dog.
The family is suing the city, seeking damages and information about what
happened. “I never thought a dog would end up killing anybody, especially a
trained dog,” said Walter Pettaway, Joe’s brother. The family also wants
public release of the police bodycam video from July 8, 2018, that is
described in court documents.
The city is fighting to keep the video from going public, arguing in court
that it would cause “annoyance, embarrassment” for officers who were acting
in good faith and could end up “facilitating civil unrest.” Officials did
not respond to requests for comment.
Police dog bites are rarely fatal. But in other ways, the case of Joseph
Pettaway is not unusual. These dogs, whose jaws and teeth are strong enough
to punch through sheet metal, often produce severe injuries. Police employ
them not only in emergencies, but also for low-level, non-violent
incidents. The dogs bite thousands of Americans each year, including
innocent bystanders, police officers, even their own handlers. And there is
little oversight, nationally or in the states, of how police departments
These are some of the findings of an investigation by The Marshall Project,
with AL.com, IndyStar and the Invisible Institute in Chicago. We obtained
dog-bite data from police departments around the country, including the
agencies in the 20 largest U.S. cities. Our reporters also examined more
than 140 serious cases nationwide, and reviewed thousands of pages of
documents, including excessive force lawsuits, department policies, arrest
reports and medical studies. We looked at scores of videos of police dog
bites. We spoke with victims and their lawyers, law enforcement officials,
former and current trainers and other experts.
Here’s more of what we found:
*Though our data shows dog bites in nearly every state**, some cities
use biting dogs far more often than others.* Police in Chicago almost
never deploy dogs for arrests and had only one incident from 2017 to 2019.
Washington had five. Seattle had 23. New York City, where policy limits
their use mostly to felony cases, reported 25. By contrast, Indianapolis
had more than 220 bites, and Los Angeles reported more than 200 bites or
dog-related injuries, while Phoenix had 169. The Sheriff’s Department in
Jacksonville, Florida, had 160 bites in this period.
*Police dog bites can be more like shark attacks than nips from a family
pet,* according to experts and medical researchers
dog chewed on an Indiana man’s neck for 30 seconds
puncturing his trachea and slicing his carotid artery. A dog ripped off
an Arizona man’s face
A police dog in California took off a man’s testicle. Dog bites
cause more hospital
visits than any other use of force by police
<https://www.iup.edu/criminology/research/policek9/>, according to a
2008 academic analysis of 30 departments.
*Many people bitten were unarmed, accused of non-violent crimes or
weren't suspects at all.* Court records show cases often start as minor
incidents—a problem with a license plate
a claim of public urination
a man looking for a lost cat
Although some departments, like Seattle
California, and St. Paul
Minnesota, now have strict criteria about when dogs can bite, many continue
to give officers wide discretion.
*Some dogs won’t stop biting and must be pulled off by a handler,
worsening injuries.* Although training experts said dogs should release
a person after a verbal command, we found dozens of cases where handlers
had to yank dogs off, hit them on the head, choke them or use shock collars.
*Men are the most common targets of police dog bites—and studies suggest
that in some places, victims have been disproportionately Black.*
Investigations into the police department in Ferguson, Missouri,
and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department
have both found that dogs bit non-White people almost exclusively. Police
dog bites sent roughly 3,600 Americans to emergency rooms
every year from 2005 to 2013, according to a recent study published in the
Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine; almost all were male, and Black men
*For many bite victims, there’s little accountability or compensation.*
Federal civil rights laws don’t typically cover innocent bystanders. In
many parts of the country, criminal suspects can’t bring federal claims if
they plead guilty or are convicted of a crime related to the biting
incident. And even when victims can bring cases, lawyers say they struggle
because jurors tend to love police dogs—something they call the Lassie
Police dogs have a highly charged history in the United States, especially
in the South, where they were used against enslaved people and, in the
1960s, civil rights protesters.
How Dogs Were Used as Weapons in North America’s History
French colonizers used hundreds of hounds against enslaved people who
rebelled during the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), according to Tyler
Parry, assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies
at the University of Nevada, and Charlton W. Yingling, Assistant Professor
at University of Louisville. An 1805 engraving shows trained bloodhounds
attacking a Black Haitian family. Archive Photos/Getty Images
During the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the United States military used
Cuban bloodhounds to force the Seminole Indians from central Florida to
west of the Mississippi River, as seen in an 1848 lithograph. MPI/Getty
An 1864 engraving by Van Ingen & Snyder depicts an enslaved man protecting
his family from bloodhounds. Dogs were used to hunt enslaved people of
African descent in the U.S. who had attempted to escape as early as 1790,
according to Dr. Parry and Dr. Yingling. AF Fotografie/Alamy
A Black high school student, Walter Gadsden, 15, is attacked by a police
dog during a civil rights demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, in
this photo by Bill Hudson. These and other iconic images from the
Birmingham protests shocked many Americans and helped bring an end to
segregation laws. Bill Hudson/Associated Press
Officers brought dogs to the Newark race riots of 1967, which began in
response to the beating by police of John Smith, a Black cab driver. An
officer with a dog argued with a man on July 14, 1967. Agence
France-Presse, via Getty Images
A police dog attacks a Steelers fan during the celebration of the team’s
Super Bowl victory in downtown Pittsburgh, Jan. 22, 1979. R.C.
But police departments that use dogs said the K-9s are essential tools for
finding fleeing suspects, and for searching dark, narrow spaces for hidden
dangers. That makes them crucial for officer safety.
Not every suspect who runs or hides or is not complying with commands will
try to injure an officer, said Deputy Chief Josh Barker of the Indianapolis
Metropolitan Police Department. But, he said, "In a lot of the instances,
we're using that K-9 as a tool because we simply don't know.”
When police use dogs properly, injuries should be minor and require little
treatment, handlers, trainers and experts said. The dogs are trained to
create puncture wounds, but little else. The wounds should not involve
tearing flesh, and the bite shouldn’t last long—seconds, not minutes.
The dogs are “not taught to rip, they’re not taught to tear, they’re not
taught to maim,” said Kenneth Licklider, who has been training and selling
police dogs for decades. Licklider owns Vohne Liche Kennels in Indiana,
which supplies dogs and trains their handlers.
Kenneth Licklider, owner of Vohne Liche Kennels, walks through a hallway in
one of the many training buildings at his facility, in Indiana, in
September. Licklider, who founded the company in 1993 after retiring from
the military, has been training canines for more than 40 years.
And with training and supervision, the dogs bite only a fraction of the
times they are used, officials said. That’s a hard statement to prove,
because few departments keep standardized data. Many of those that
responded to our requests for records did not provide information on
deployments, and when they did it was incomplete and inconsistent.
As a spokesman for the Jacksonville sheriff noted, “With policies varying
among agencies, the number of engagements cannot be accurately compared.”
But some attorneys said the law should treat police dogs as lethal weapons.
“I'd put being attacked by a dog just below being shot,” said Hank Sherrod,
who has represented dog bite victims in Alabama.
Law enforcement agencies employ about 15,000 dogs for everything from
finding lost children to sniffing out drugs, according to the U.S. Police
Canine Association, a professional group. But no countrywide database
tracks police dogs, the number of bites or who is bitten. There are no
national requirements for dog handlers.
Handling dogs is more art than science, some in the business say. “The
handler’s personality will go right down that leash,” said Ernie Burwell, a
former canine handler for the Los Angeles County Sheriff who now testifies
as an expert witness in excessive force cases. “If the handler’s an idiot,
the dog will be, too.”
The lack of regulation worries some experts.
“It’s just sort of the Wild West when it comes to these dogs,” said Christy
Lopez, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center who previously
focused on policing and civil rights at the U.S. Department of Justice. She
recalled speaking to a young Black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, who’d
been curled up in a closet when a police dog gnawed on his arm.
“In Ferguson, I realized this was not a thing that needed to be reformed,”
Lopez said. “It was a thing that needed to end.”
The Police Executive Research Forum, a prominent law enforcement think
tank, recently called <https://www.policeforum.org/assets/Canines.pdf> for
clearer national standards to ensure all agencies have protocols for canine
Police officers said they are already careful about using dogs.
“A dog bite, it’s a violent encounter,” said Patrick McKean, trainer for
the Mobile Police Department in Alabama. “The dog’s hurting somebody. We’re
not going to just do that just for any little reason.”
Trainers say bites are worse when people don’t follow orders—when they try
to run or fight back. But many videos we reviewed show people screaming in
terror or flailing around, even as the handler yells at them to stop.
“It’s really hard for someone not to move when they’re bitten, and the more
they move, the more they’re bitten,” said Ann Schiavone, a law professor at
Duquesne University in Pittsburgh who is an expert in animal law.
Take the case of Patrick Gibbons, a White 47-year-old who sells golf
supplies. On May 5, 2019, he flagged down a golf-cart taxi in the Old Town
district in Scottsdale, Arizona. After Gibbons demanded that the driver go
faster and even tried to push the accelerator himself, the driver got out.
Gibbons took off (at 15 mph) in the cart. The driver called 911, telling
the dispatcher Gibbons was unarmed but drunk.
On May 5, 2019, officers in Scottsdale, Arizona released a patrol dog on
Patrick Gibbons after he stole a golf-cart taxi while drunk. Courtesy of
A swarm of patrol cars responded while Gibbons, wearing shorts and flip
flops, laughed and gave police the finger. After they punctured the cart’s
tires to stop it, Gibbons put his hands up. Then, an officer released the
patrol dog, police video shows.
For almost two minutes, the dog chewed on Gibbons’ back and side. Police
said Gibbons was “flinging the K-9 from side to side,” according to an
internal affairs report, and they fired non-lethal weapons at him.
“I couldn’t move without feeling some sort of pain,” Gibbons said. “There’s
still stiffness. Now I just tell people I was attacked by a shark.”
Gibbons received a $100,000 settlement from the city for his injuries, but
said he’s dissatisfied that criminal and internal investigations cleared
officers of any wrongdoing. Gibbons said he took a plea deal for driving
while intoxicated and stealing the golf cart, spending 36 days in jail and
five months on home arrest.
A police dog mauled Patrick Gibbons in Scottsdale, Arizona, in May 2019.
The photos below, which Gibbons said were taken about a week after the
incident, show his injuries from the dog to his torso and arm.
Top: Cassidy Araiza for The Marshall Project; bottom: Courtesy of Patrick
A Scottsdale police spokesman said officers received the call as a reported
carjacking and believed they were responding to a violent felony. He said
Gibbons also refused police demands to stop the golf cart. If officers
realized the true situation, their response would have been “wholly and
completely different,” said Sgt. Brian Reynolds.
“We’re not out just siccing dogs on people just because they’re drunk,” he
said. “Absolutely not.”
Some of the most serious injuries happen when handlers struggle to make
dogs let go.
In Sonoma County, California, sheriff’s deputies responded to a caller who
claimed a man had a gun. They used a Taser on Jason Anglero-Wyrick, a
35-year-old Black man. After he was on the ground, video shows, they set a
dog on him—and had a hard time getting it to stop attacking. Anglero-Wyrick
ended up with a fist-sized hole in his calf, his lawyer said, and spent
weeks in the hospital. He did not have a weapon.
Anglero-Wyrick’s family put a video of the incident on YouTube, his lawyer
said, because they wanted the public to see what happened.
In Sonoma County, California, sheriff’s deputies set a dog on Jason
Anglero-Wyrick, a 35-year-old Black man. Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office
“If that video hadn’t been posted, nobody would know about Jason’s case,”
said his lawyer, Izaak Schwaiger.
A Sonoma County sheriff’s spokeswoman said the case is still under internal
investigation and referred a reporter to a video of the incident posted to
the agency’s Facebook page
Even when they have suffered terrible injuries, people bitten by police
dogs can find it very hard to collect damages. Take Deborah Hooper, a White
woman who used to work as an accountant. According to court records, on May
9, 2006, a security guard at a drugstore in the San Diego suburbs caught
her stealing a nail file and a couple of lipsticks. A sheriff’s deputy
issued her a citation for petty theft, then took her to the parking lot and
searched her car.
The deputy said he found a drug scale and what looked like methamphetamine,
and tried to arrest her. As they struggled, the deputy pushed a special
button on his belt, releasing his German Shepherd, court records show. The
dog latched onto Hooper’s head, ripping off large chunks of her scalp and
biting down to her skull.
Fourteen years later, Hooper is still undergoing surgeries. Doctors grafted
skin from her thigh onto her head. They filled water balloons and stuck
them under her remaining scalp to stretch the skin. She said she became a
hermit and has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
She is also still in court, reliving the incident over and over again. She
had to battle to get the right to sue for excessive use of force in federal
court because she had pleaded guilty to resisting arrest; an appeals court
eventually ruled in her favor. Her second trip to federal court ended with
a hung jury.
This spring, she was back in court again, in a third trial that also ended
in a hung jury. “The dog was just ripping my head back and forth,” she told
jurors in San Diego. “There was blood everywhere.”
The Sheriff’s Office and the deputy said she lunged for his gun, which she
denied. At the most recent trial in March, Melissa Holmes, the lawyer who
represents the agency, said the officer “did what he had to do to protect
himself and to protect the public.”
A spokesman for San Diego County did not respond to a request for comment.
A fourth trial was scheduled for this month but has been postponed.
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One hurdle for people seeking redress is qualified immunity
which in most cases shields government employees, including police, from
liability when they are doing their jobs. In its last term, the U.S.
Supreme Court declined to take up a legal challenge to the doctrine in a
lawsuit over a police dog bite. A Tennessee man, Alexander Baxter, had sued
alleging that local police used a dog after he had surrendered with his
hands in the air.
Outside of the courtroom, some communities are pushing for change.
Elected officials in Spokane have proposed making it harder for the police
to use dogs after bodycam footage from last year showed an officer shoving
a dog through a truck window
and watching it chew on a man inside as he screamed. Police leaders
concluded the officer acted within department policy.
“It seemed like the officers essentially used the dog to punish him,” said
Breean Beggs, a civil rights lawyer and president of the Spokane City
Council. “If that's policy, then there is something wrong with the policy."
The department did not respond to requests for comment.
Officers with a police dog approached protesters after they marched onto
the I-680 freeway during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Walnut
Creek, California, on June 1. Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group
Police officers arrested a group of protesters that failed to disperse. Jose
Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group
Joseph Malott was arrested during the protest after being attacked by a
police dog. Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group
Malott was assisted up after being handcuffed. Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area
A police dog bit and scratched Malott, leaving lasting scars on his back. Jose
Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group
An apparent dog bite can be seen on Malott’s left leg after he was placed
on a stretcher. Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group
In Salt Lake City, officials suspended the canine unit after a video showed
police releasing a dog on a Black man
though he was on his knees, hands in the air. In a rare move, prosecutors filed
criminal charges of second-degree aggravated assault against the dog handler
On Sept. 25, the city said that a review found a “pattern of abuse of
power” when police used dogs, and moved to examine earlier incidents.
The Salt Lake City Police Department said in a statement that
it is taking the criminal charges and a report by the Civilian Review Board
into account as it works on its internal investigation.
Change is also underway in Walnut Creek, California, after officers
released a dog on a demonstrator at a recent Black Lives Matter protest.
When marchers snarled highway traffic, a SWAT team released canisters of
tear gas. Joseph Malott, a Black architecture student who joined the June 1
protest in his hometown, said he picked up one canister and tossed it
away—in the direction of the cops.
Joseph Malott, a 22-year-old architecture student, was attacked and bitten
by a police dog in Walnut Creek, California, during a Black Lives Matter
demonstration on June 1. Photos of his back and legs a few hours after the
Top: Marissa Leshnov for The Marshall Project; bottom: Courtesy of J&J Law
Then he was face-down on the pavement. A police dog’s teeth sliced through
his T-shirt and sank into his back, tearing his flesh and poking holes
through his skin. He felt chewing on his leg and hand.
“It felt like I was being eaten,” Malott said recently. “They literally had
to pull the dog off me.”
Public outcry about police actions at the protest
prompted city leaders to promise that law enforcement wouldn’t use dogs at
Charges against Malott were dropped, and he no longer needs crutches or a
cane. But he still has physical and mental scars, he said. “It’s stuff that
will be with me for the rest of my life.”
*Additional reporting by Michelle Pitcher, Damini Sharma, Andrew Calderon
and Ashley Remkus.*
*Photos by Mykal McEldowney and Joe Songer. Photo and video editing by
*Design and development by Elan Kiderman, Katie Park and Gabe Isman.*
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