WASHINGTON — A controversial federal judge surprised a Senate committee Tuesday by asserting that young blacks who were attacked by police dogs may have benefited from the experience.
Judge Kenneth L. Ryskamp, President Bush's nominee to move up to a federal appeals court, said the mauling of several young black men by police attack dogs may have provided "a negative reinforcement" against their committing future crimes.
Ryskamp said it was this rationale that prompted him in 1987 to throw out a jury's verdict against officers of the West Palm Beach, Fla., police department. The officers were accused of civil rights violations in a damage suit filed by four black men.
"If their only remembrance of the crime was the pain of being bitten by a dog, that may be a negative reinforcement and they may never steal again," Ryskamp said. "I was thinking of their own welfare . . . and that a painful experience might be a deterrent."
The comments were made in the opening minutes of a contentious hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Civil rights groups have targeted Ryskamp for defeat because of a series of rulings against blacks, Latinos, women and the elderly.
The 1987 trial grew out of the police department's routine use of German shepherds to attack and subdue suspects. In 50% of the incidents over the previous six years, the dogs had bitten the suspects while subduing them.
Two of the four young men who brought the lawsuit suffered severe bites and were not accused of any crime. One, a 15-year old, was attacked in a city park and bitten badly on his arm and upper thighs. A second was lying drunk in his front yard when he was attacked by a dog.
After hearing the evidence, the jury handed down a verdict in favor of the young men.
However, Ryskamp, a 1986 appointee of President Ronald Reagan, threw out the verdict and dismissed the complaint.
"I think of countries where, if you are guilty of a robbery, they cut off your hand as a vivid reminder that this is forbidden," Ryskamp had told the lawyers in 1987. "It might not be inappropriate to carry around a few scars to remind you of your wrongdoing in the past."
A federal appeals court overturned Ryskamp's decision and reinstated the jury verdict, and the city then settled the case.
On Tuesday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) pressed the judge to explain his comments. He compared the tone of Ryskamp's comments to a recent statement by Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates that the beating of motorist Rodney G. King may "move him down the road to a good life instead of the life he's been involved in for such a long time." Why not say, Biden said, "that I made a big mistake and I screwed up?"
Because, the judge replied, his decision and comments were not a mistake.
"I think I affirmed the right to civil rights. But I was observing a certain irony here . . . that, if he (the plaintiff) receives a lot of money (in damages), this will encourage him to commit more crimes," Ryskamp replied. "I would like to make sure that he will straighten out his life and go on."
Repeatedly, Biden corrected Ryskamp for referring to the "crime" committed by the young men in the West Palm Beach case. In its record of the case, the Atlanta-based appeals court noted that two of the young men were accused of stealing minor items, but the two others were mistakenly apprehended. The appeals court said also that the dogs were taught to "bite and hold a suspect" and officers proudly displayed yellow stars on their patrol cars--stars they were rewarded for each apprehension involving the dogs.
Civil rights attorney James K. Green, who brought the case, plans to testify against Ryskamp today. The judge displayed "outright hostility" to the black plaintiffs and refused to let the jurors see photos of 100 bites the dogs inflicted, Green said in a prepared statement.