A great many police departments throughout the country have created K-9 units to find criminals, seek out lost children, sniff out illegal drugs and explosives and perform a host of other tasks. Most often, the dogs are praised for their discipline and courage. In San Diego, California, however, where the police department created a K-9 unit in 1984 after six of its officers had been killed within 5 years (the highest rate in the U.S. at the time), police dogs have become controversial. In recent years there has been a spike in the number of suspects bitten by police dogs. This spike of attacks is raising questions about the appropriate use of canines in police work in this city.
Reasons K-9 nits Are Helpful
In addition to finding suspects and contraband, dogs are commonly used to maintain order in crowded areas and to de-escalate situations where there is a potential for violence. Police department officials, in San Diego and elsewhere, report that dogs are very useful in crowd control and in many situations prevent the officers themselves from having to use force. Nonetheless, in San Diego, the community is complaining about the danger implicit in using a dog not only as a threat but as a possible weapon.
The Consequences of Community Upset
When the community gets roiled, its leaders step up to represent them and that’s just what has happened in San Diego. Several high-profile incidents in which suspects have been bitten have resulted in an uproar, and a number have resulted in lawsuits. One lawsuit involved an unarmed naked man whose leg was severely injured by the bites of a police dog. The suspect sued the city and won $385,000 in damages in a settlement. In another case, a man was bitten while handcuffed; this incident, too, is expected to precipitate a lawsuit. Those who oppose the use of canines in law enforcement say that allowing dogs to bite suspects is a misuse of power that may be unconstitutional.
The Extent of the Problem
It is undeniable that the number of suspects bitten annually in San Diego has risen sharply from 15 in 2013 to 86 in 2016, but the number of times officers deployed a canine also increased a great deal over the same period — from 1,778 to 3,222. It is worth noting that this period saw an overall decrease in crime and emergency responses by the police as well.
In Defense of Police Dogs
Assistant Police Chief Chuck Kaye attributes the rise in troubling incidents to the increased number of cases involving suspects on drugs or suffering from serious mental illness. He offers the following reasons that the recent statistics are misleading and police dogs are an asset to the force:
- Dogs not only have an extremely strong sense of smell, but are much faster than police officers or suspects
- Dogs are a psychological deterrent to aggression since suspects tend to be more frightened of an attack by an animal than by a police officer (in spite of the statistics)
- The percentage of bites per canine unit response has remained low even though the dogs have been used more frequently
- There has not been a case of a dog killing a suspect, whereas there are many cases of suspects being shot by officers
- Dogs actually lessen the potential for violence, injuries, and lawsuits.
Kaye also points out that the San Diego Police Department is overhauling its training methods to diminish the number of unsettling incidents.
he Arguments Against K-9s on the Police Force
Donald Cook, a Los Angeles attorney who has sued San Diego over its K-9 unit policies, has a number of arguments against using dogs for law enforcement. He believes that:
- Police rarely send dogs into situations that carry a threat of lethal force because they know the animals are valuable and are protective of them
- Dogs won’t prevent a person with a weapon from using it, and might, in fact, increase the chances that the suspect will use a weapon
- There is no known study that demonstrates police dogs keep police officers from being killed
- “A dog attack is inherently violent”
So Far, the Dogs Are Winning
Although a previous courtroom decision had gone against San Diego’s K-9 policies, this past June 9th the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 10-1 in favor of the city in a case in which an employee of a company was mistakenly bitten by a police dog. In that case, police were looking for a burglary suspect in a dark office building. The court ruled that the officers acted reasonably and were justified in protecting themselves from a potential danger. Although the outcome of this case was favorable for the police department, since last year the Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman is in the process of reviewing and refining canine training and policies.