[News] The City Where Police Unleash Dogs On Black Teens

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Fri Feb 12 10:36:10 EST 2021


https://www.themarshallproject.org/2021/02/12/the-city-where-police-unleash-dogs-on-black-teens?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter&utm_source=opening-statement&utm_term=newsletter-20210212-2367
The
City Where Police Unleash Dogs On Black Teens
Bryn Stole, Grace Toohey - February 11, 2021
------------------------------

Charles Carey was riding his dirt bike through north Baton Rouge
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/records/2880-baton-rouge-louisiana>,
Louisiana, in June 2019 when a police cruiser flipped on its lights.

The bike had no license plate, and the 17-year-old thought police just
wanted it off the road, he said. So he sped away. Officers gave chase.

He hit a stump and went flying, busting open his chin. He got up and ran,
then hid under a house. Officers set loose a dog to go after him. The
animal bit his foot, then his knee. He kept screaming as the dog dragged
him out from under the house. Police camera footage shows him yelling, “My
leg!” as officers questioned him.

Between 2017 and 2019, Baton Rouge police dogs bit at least 146 people,
records show. Of those, 53 were 17 years old or younger; the youngest were
just 13. Almost all of the people bitten were Black, and most were unarmed
and suspected by police of nonviolent crimes like driving a stolen vehicle
or burglary.

The Baton Rouge Police Department is an extreme outlier compared with many
other police agencies across the country, in how often it uses dogs to
subdue people of all ages—and in particular how often its dogs bite
teenagers, once every three weeks, on average.

The Marshall Project has been investigating the use of police dogs around
the U.S.
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/10/15/mauled-when-police-dogs-are-weapons>
It examined bites by police dogs in the nation’s 20 largest cities
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/10/02/when-police-violence-is-a-dog-bite>
from 2017 through 2019, as well as more than 30 other law enforcement
agencies whose use of police dogs has sparked controversy.

A joint analysis by The Advocate <https://www.theadvocate.com/> and The
Marshall Project found that the BRPD had the second highest per-capita rate
of dogs biting suspects of the cities examined. Only the police department
in Auburn, Washington, a much smaller city, had a higher rate.

The results were particularly striking when it came to juveniles
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/tag/juvenile-justice>, who are much
more likely to be bitten in Baton Rouge than in any of the 12 other cities
for which reporters could obtain the age of the victims.

Baton Rouge K-9s Bite at Extremely High Rates

The Baton Rouge Police Department’s dogs bite people at a higher rate than
those at any of the departments in the country’s 20 largest cities. Between
2017-19, the department’s K-9s bit 146 people, a rate of 66 per 100,000
people for the three-year period. The rate is more than double that of the
Indianapolis Metropolitan Police, which has the highest bite rate of the 20
largest departments.
0102030405060Baton Rouge PDPlaceholderIndianapolis Metro PDJacksonville
SheriffHouston PDDenver PDPhoenix PDSan Jose PDSan Diego PDDallas
PDCharlotte-Mecklenburg
PDLos Angeles PDSeattle PDAustin PDFort Worth PDSan Antonio PDDC Metro PDNew
York PDColumbus PoliceSan Francisco PDPhiladelphia PDChicago PD

Analysis of use of force data from police departments, population data from
the Census Bureau.

Per-capita rates use the latest five-year census population estimates and
are approximations. City police departments in Los Angeles, Houston and San
Antonio may include serious non-bite injuries in their K-9 use-of-force
records. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department data for bites in 2019
include numbers through January 23, 2020.

The analysis also revealed stark racial disparities in dog bites in Baton
Rouge. All but two of the 53 minors attacked by a BRPD police dog during
those three years were Black. So, too, were more than 90 percent of the
adults bitten, even though Black residents make up just over half of the
city’s population. And in every instance, according to BRPD’s records, the
officer handling the police dog was White.

Reporters also found that, in an overwhelming majority of cases, there was
no evidence the people bitten by K-9s posed a grave threat. Almost all were
unarmed; less than 9 percent of them were caught with a weapon, the records
show.

The Advocate was unable to analyze court records from more than one-third
of the incidents because both Baton Rouge police and the East Baton Rouge
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/records/7372-east-baton-rouge-parish>
Parish District Attorney’s Office refused to provide information about
cases involving juveniles, citing confidentiality rules.

But dispatch codes—which show what callers reported to 911 operators—
indicate that in nearly every case, police were responding to suspected
nonviolent property crimes.

That lines up with the experience of public defenders, local attorneys and
a former juvenile judge in Baton Rouge, who said they routinely see
children come into court with serious injuries from police dogs following
arrests on low-level charges.

“Generally what we see is kids come in on minor property theft felonies, an
unauthorized use of a motor vehicle charge, and the police apprehend them
by siccing a dog on them,” said Madalyn Wasilczuk, director of LSU’s
Juvenile Law Clinic, which represents children in Baton Rouge juvenile
court. “It’s done without regard for whether the child presents a danger to
the police or the community.”

The BRPD defended its extensive use of police dogs, saying those bitten
were suspected of serious crimes and were resisting arrest, either by
hiding from police or running.

“Every single person that we caught was in the process of committing a
felony, they were possibly armed and they were resisting arrest,” said
Capt. Wayne Martin, a longtime K-9 officer and now commander of the Uniform
Patrol Bureau. “If any one of those things is absent, we don’t use the
dogs.”

Baton Rouge Police Cpl. Brandon Farris is apprehended by a K-9, Ranger,
during the U.S. Police Canine Association regional field trials in April of
2017, in Baton Rouge, La.
Hilary Scheinuk/Baton Rouge Advocate

While just a small fraction of those bitten by BRPD dogs were caught with a
weapon, Martin contended officers don’t know in the moment whether a person
might be armed. He added that officers are trained to unleash the dogs only
after giving warnings to surrender.

“We’re using all the restraint we can to effect a lawful arrest,” said
Martin. “The vast majority of cases, the injuries are very minor. Dogs are
taken off as fast as we can gain control of the suspect.”

Cpl. L’Jean McKneely, a BRPD spokesman, maintains that using K-9s is
“actually safer for the suspect” than other methods at officers’ disposal.

With dogs, “We’re using less lethal (force) to take them into custody as
opposed to maybe having to elevate it to possibly lethal force,” he said.

Wasilczuk disputed Martin’s claim that police issue alerts when they are
about to unleash their dogs. “It’s simply not true that the police always
warn the children,” she said. She said she’s seen body-cam video where
there was no warning or one occurred at the same time as the dog was being
released from a police car.

In at least one instance in recent years, she said, a Baton Rouge police
dog that officers sicced on fleeing teens instead attacked a homeless man
sleeping in the bushes. Wasilczuk said she’s also familiar with at least
one case where police sent a dog into an occupied car, where it bit a child.

Jack Harrison, a juvenile public defender in East Baton Rouge Parish, said
the typical crime he sees that ends with a K-9 bite starts with a teen
running from a stolen car pulled over by police.

“There seems to be some real disconnect between (the) level of force used
and the purpose of police contact,” Harrison said. He reviewed The
Advocate’s data, and was especially concerned by the frequent deployment of
police dogs on Black children.

“The racial disparity is an appalling part of this horrific situation,”
Harrison said.

The Advocate interviewed three other teenagers, all Black, who were bitten
by BRPD dogs, and their families. Each said that once the children were
detained, officers minimized or ignored their dangerous wounds—known to be
highly susceptible to infection or long-term muscle damage. Parents and
guardians often only learned about the injuries days later, sometimes
because a public defender noticed the bandages.

The families called the dog bites another sign of aggressive policing in
their neighborhoods, a criticism the BRPD has faced for decades.

One child said he was not the only boy in the Baton Rouge juvenile
detention facility with injuries from a police dog. Another said he became
afraid of dogs after the incident, despite previously loving the family pet.

BRPD reports and arrest records often make little mention of a dog bite,
even in cases that required stitches and left lasting scars. Officers
record the bites in separate use-of-force reports—known as a “Response to
Resistive Behavior Report”—but even those records generally include only a
terse description of the injuries, such as “dog bite to right thigh” or
“minor dog bite to right arm.”

“Sometimes in the report, it’s not there that they were taken down by a K-9
unit, but I see all the injuries and I will ask, ‘What happened?’” said Pam
Johnson, who recently retired as a juvenile court judge. “‘The dogs,’ and
that’s how the kids will refer to them, ‘They put the dogs on me.’

“Is it necessary to have that level of force?” she asked.

A Baton Rouge police officer and his K-9 at the scene of a shooting in
October of 2017, in Baton Rouge, La.
Hilary Scheinuk/Baton Rouge Advocate

BRPD policies give their K-9 officers much more leeway over when and how
they can use their police dogs than other peer agencies, such as the New
Orleans Police Department
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/records/3864-new-orleans-police-department>.


The Baton Rouge K-9 policy, which the police department last reviewed in
2016, says deployments are “based on the severity of the crime, whether the
suspect poses an immediate threat” and whether the person is resisting or
trying to avoid arrest. The policy does not address juveniles in any way.
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/books>

By comparison, the current NOPD policy declares that dogs “shall not be
used to apprehend suspects known to be juveniles who also pose no immediate
threat of serious injury.” It also says “mere flight alone is insufficient”
reason to deploy a dog.

Baton Rouge police declined to say why its policies are looser than those
of other big-city departments. But Martin, the BRPD captain and former K-9
unit commander, defended the frequent use of police dogs, arguing that
running from police is a sign of trouble.

“It's an unfortunate thing that they were bit—but it happens in the act of
them committing a serious crime,” Martin said.

The BRPD policy notes Internal Affairs must be notified when bites require
stitches or result in broken bones.

Martin did not directly address the glaring racial disparities found in
BRPD dog victims, or the high number of juveniles injured, other than
saying that officers frequently don’t know the race or age of a suspect
before they release a dog.

More Than a Third of Baton Rouge Police Department’s K-9 Bites Involve
Juveniles

Between 2017 and 2019, 146 people were bitten by Baton Rouge PD K-9s—53 of
them were 17 or younger. This is the highest rate of any department that
provided bite and age data. Five of the 13 departments that provided such
data reported no juvenile bites at all.

0%10%20%30%40%Baton Rouge PD Huntsville PDIndianapolis Metro PDDenver PDAuburn
PDLos Angeles PDKent PDSpokane PDColumbus PDMobile PDNorth Port PDSioux
Falls PDSt. John PD

Analysis of use of force data from police departments. Age data comes from
reports given by each department.

NOPD’s much stricter policy has proven effective in recent years at
minimizing the use of K-9s. Not a single person was bitten by an NOPD dog
from 2017 to 2019, according to agency records—the same period in which
Baton Rouge police, patrolling a much smaller city, used dogs to bite at
least 146 people.

The policy in New Orleans
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/records/123-new-orleans-louisiana> was
the result of a federal investigation of the department
<https://www.nola.gov/nopd/nopd-consent-decree/>. Christy Lopez, a former
U.S. Justice Department official who helped manage that investigation, said
K-9 usage needs better oversight across the country, given the severe
injuries police dogs can inflict. She said a dog bite is “much more akin to
being shot” than almost any other use of police force.

“There’s just something so uncivilized, and really savage is the word that
comes to mind, about using police dogs to attack humans,” Lopez said. “We
really don’t want officers using this unless it’s really necessary.”

Lester had just turned 14 when BRPD officers in October 2019 arrested him
and a friend outside a recently burglarized furniture store in north Baton
Rouge. Lester’s friend froze and surrendered, but Lester, whose mother
asked that his last name not be used because he’s a minor, ran and hid
nearby.

He soon gave himself up with his hands raised, Lester said, as police, guns
drawn, ordered him onto the ground. Only then, Lester said, did police set
a dog loose on him. It ripped right through a pair of jeans and into his
right leg “almost to the bone,” tearing out a substantial chunk of flesh.

The cops had to pry the dog off as he screamed in pain, said Lester, who is
now 15.

“The dog should not have been involved, it wasn’t anything serious,” he
said.

His mother, who asked not to be named for fear of antagonizing police, said
Lester could barely sleep for two weeks. Lester spent six more weeks on
crutches and missed significant time in middle school.

More than a year later, his flesh has healed over, but the bites have left
lasting damage. He still walks with a limp, and sometimes finds it
difficult to stand. He said he has almost no feeling around the spot of the
bite, but it still occasionally shoots with pain.

The emotional trauma, his mother said, has been just as scarring as the
physical pain, and has disrupted his education. She described him as
“completely different” since the incident.

“He’s basically scared to death of the police now,” she said. “He was into
football and stuff and now he just really wants to stay at home, stay close
around the family. He thinks he’ll get killed.”

Authorities did not release police or court records regarding Lester’s
arrest because he is a juvenile. His mother said he faced a charge related
to the burglary, which she said was resolved with probation.

“I know what he was doing wasn’t right, but what he went through could’ve
been avoided,” she added. “He didn’t have a weapon, he didn’t have anything
in his hands at all. ...I just hate it because they (the police) knew they
were dealing with children.”

The use of police dogs in the U.S., especially against Black people
<https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/10/29/police-wanted-a-dog-that-would-bite-a-black-person>,
has a troubled history.

During the early 1960s, police in Birmingham, Ala., used their dogs to
attack peaceful Black marchers; images of the savage assaults helped
elevate the civil rights movement. More recently, a federal probe of
Feguson, Missouri, police following 2015 demonstrations over the police
killing of Michael Brown found that “K-9 officers,” or dogs, were
repeatedly used excessively, and exclusively, on Black residents.

BRPD has had its own share of controversy over biased policing. After
Hurricane Katrina, the agency came under fire—mostly from peer agencies—for
its harsh treatment of Black evacuees from New Orleans. In 2016, a cell
phone video captured a White Baton Rouge officer shooting and killing Alton
Sterling <https://www.themarshallproject.org/records/3128-alton-sterling>,
a 37-year-old Black man, sparking protests around the nation.

Only recently did the department close a decades-long consent decree
<https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/crime_police/article_d014e42e-8704-11e9-a75e-dbb2d8387744.html>
forcing diversity in its ranks. Even so, BRPD remains much Whiter than the
majority-Black city it patrols.

Johnson, the retired juvenile judge, worries about how the constant overuse
of police dogs on Baton Rouge children further erodes youths’ perception of
police, as she knows many are already so skeptical.

“If it was a human officer that chased down a child, caught the child, and
just beat their face up and busted their nose, we’d have a real issue with
that, wouldn’t we?” Johnson said. “But it’s the dogs, it’s the K-9
officers.”

She said she also worries about the damage these attacks have on children
and their development.

“They’re severe bites, and then what is the toll psychologically?” Johnson
said. “It’s a trauma.”

Patricia Rogers' grandson, Charles Carey, 19, was bitten by a Baton Rouge
Police Department dog.
Travis Spradling/Baton Rouge Advocate

Charles Carey, who got bitten two years ago by a Baton Rouge K-9 after
fleeing on his dirt bike, agrees—and disputes a police report that
downplayed his wounds.

“Man, that wasn’t no minor injury,” said Carey, now 19. “My leg is still
hurting.”

He said police told him they were after stolen dirt bikes. His wasn’t.

Officers arrested him anyway, booking him into East Baton Rouge Parish
Prison on suspicion of aggravated flight, resisting an officer and
marijuana possession, for a small amount they said they found in his
pocket. He was booked as an adult under Louisiana law. Court records show
the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office did not pursue the
charges. BRPD did not specifically discuss his arrest.

Carey said he cleaned his wounds and got around on crutches for two weeks.
Two years later, his leg still goes numb when he walks too long, he said,
so he’ll sit and massage it back to life.

“They need to do something about dog bites,” said his grandmother, Patricia
Rogers. “It’s a problem.”

*This story was produced in partnership with The Advocate. The Marshall
Project’s reporters David Eads, Mitchelle Pitcher and Weihua Li contributed
to this story.*
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