When two figures fled the scene of a burglary in the wee hours of one morning last month, Oxnard police officers yelled a warning and then let loose a dog from the department's K-9 Unit.
One of the suspects froze in his tracks and surrendered without a struggle. The other did not. The dog, a highly trained malinois, sped past the first suspect and tackled the second one, who whipped out a knife and stabbed the animal five times before being apprehended, police say.
Two weeks later, the hearty dog's wounds were healed and it was back at work, tracking thieves, protecting officers and, some say, deterring crime with its mere presence.
The Oxnard Police Department cites the case as evidence for the effectiveness of its 7-year-old K-9 Unit, which is five dogs strong.
Officer Escaped Harm
"That stabbing could have happened to one of the officers," explains Assistant Police Chief William Cady.
But not all cases involving canine units end as neatly. A series of recent lawsuits against the city raises questions about the practice of using what one kennel official acknowledges is "basically an animal of prey" in law enforcement.
Four lawsuits filed over the past two years in Ventura County Superior Court accuse the department of misconduct in tracking or apprehending suspected criminals with dogs. They ask for up to $750,000 in damages for dog bites inflicted by members of the city's K-9 Unit. A fifth suit, which was settled in 1986 for $12,000, involved an attack by an off-duty police dog.
Now the Oxnard officials are fighting back. They are pressing for a bill, which has been introduced by Assemblyman Jack O'Connell (D-Carpinteria), that would limit a city's liability in instances when police dogs inflict injury in the line of duty.
Council Supports Bill
In a unanimous motion Tuesday, the City Council voted to urge Oxnard's lobbyist to support AB 2973, an amendment to the state's current dog-bite statute.
"The problem is that a fleeing suspect is doing wrong or they wouldn't be getting bit in the first place, and it's high time that people realize that," said council member Ann Johs, a longtime supporter of the city's K-9 Unit.
The unit is funded solely through contributions, most of which are raised at an annual Chamber of Commerce dance.
Introduced at the request of Oxnard Deputy City Atty. Charles Wessler, the bill would require the victim of an attack by a police dog to demonstrate negligence on the part of the dog's handler before receiving compensation for damages.
The test for negligence in these cases would be the same as with such "instruments of justice" as batons and guns--reasonable force, Wessler said.
Loophole in the Law
The bill's supporters, which include the Riverside kennel where Oxnard has bought its dogs in the past, say AB 2973 merely closes a loophole in existing law, which holds the owner of any dog--whether it's a pet or the member of a police canine unit--automatically liable for any damages inflicted by the animal.
They hope the proposed legislation would make it more difficult to collect damage awards, which can prove a financial burden to the cities and counties that manage the law enforcement agencies. To even file a response in any suit against a police force costs the public between $1,000 and $2,000 per case, says Alva Cooper, the legislative advocate for the California Peace Officers Organization.
"This is going to eliminate frivolous lawsuits which cost the taxpayers money," said O'Connell.
But opponents say the bill would do more than eliminate frivolous lawsuits. They say that it would unjustly complicate the process of obtaining restitution in legitimate cases of police brutality involving dogs.
The opponents, who include the Channel Island Legal Services Assn., complain that it would unfairly shift the burden of proof in cases that already are difficult to try.
"I think it's wrong in any situation to put the burden on the victim," said Channel Counties Executive Director Carmen Ramirez.
And instead of pointing to a need for legislative reform, the abundance of suits against Oxnard's canine unit points to a problem within the city's Police Department, said the bill's detractors.
Dogs 'Out of Control'
"I think the dogs are out of control," said Lawrence Schulner who is representing clients in two of Oxnard's five suits. "They come down heavy as hell."
Schulner points to a suit he has filed on behalf of Alfonso Simon Valdez. Police pulled over Valdez after he ran a red light at an Oxnard Boulevard intersection two years ago and attempted to take him into custody for what appeared to be drug intoxication.
Schulner maintains that his client was submitting "peacefully and calmly" to a frisking when a police dog charged at him from the police car that the officers had been driving. Valdez stuffered numerous, unwarranted dog bites, Schulner said.
"The officers just didn't care enough to contain the animal."