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Poor Training Cited in Majority of Police Dog Bite Lawsuits

"I caught something moving out of the corner of my eye" just before he was suddenly "flattened" by a police dog in 2008. Then the dog clamped down. "The pain was something indescribable," he says.

It's hard to know how many people are bitten by police dogs in California each year. Last May it was reported that our state leads the nation in the sheer number of dog bite insurance claims, but little information is available on the cost to municipalities for dog bite claims originating from police dogs.

As for the State of Washington, however, the Seattle Times recently decided to look into the question. Unfortunately, the reporters found that wrongful dog attacks occur several times a year in that state. In the past five years, the newspaper says, 17 people were wrongly attacked and Washington law enforcement agencies paid out nearly $1 million in damages.

California is a much larger and more populous state than Washington, and we have innumerable law enforcement agencies, so the problem may be common here, as well.

Experts say that the fact that inappropriate police dogs attacks occur at all, much less severe ones, is evidence that the dogs and their handlers are not properly trained. In the U.S. K-9 officers are supposed to be trained to attack only at the human officer's express command, and even then they are supposed to "bite and hold," not tear and thrash, and to release on command. Ideally, a police dog will bite only because the police want it to.

"K-9s, like any other tool issued to and used by law enforcement in the application of any force ... carry an inherent risk," explained one deputy familiar with the use of police dogs. "The decision to utilize a K-9 team for a wanted-felon search is not made lightly."

In Europe, police dogs are not trained to "bite and hold." Instead, they are expected to locate the suspect and then circle and bark at him or her to prevent flight. This method is called "find and bark" or "bark and contain." European dogs are trained to bite only when the suspect does attempt to flee or the dog's handler is attacked.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the International Association of Chiefs of Police would like to start training American police dogs on the "bark and contain" method, but the idea is facing resistance among some law enforcement agencies.

Do we have a problem with police dogs biting innocent people? Yes. Anytime it happens, it's a problem. Would better training -- or different training -- help?

Sources:

  • The Spokesman-Review, "K-9 attack lawsuits expensive," Associated Press, March 4, 2013
  • The Huffington Post, "Dog Bite Insurance: California Spends The Most Money On Dog Bite Insurance Claims," Sue Manning, The Associated Press, May 16, 2012

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