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A BITING CONTROVERSY : Los Angeles Police Dogs Bite Hundreds of People Every Year, Many of Them Never Charged With a Crime. Officials Say the Dogs Are Just Doing Their Job. The Victims Say They Are Instruments of Terror.

February 09, 1992|DAVID BEERS | Vancouver-based writer David Beers is working on a book about California.

THE VIDEOTAPE HAS A FAMILIAR QUALITY, JERKY LATE-NIGHT IMAGES OF LOS ANgeles Police Department uniforms gathered around an unarmed young black man flung to the ground, squirming in pain. This time, however, there are no flailing batons or discharged Tasers. Instead, a police dog's teeth bite into the man as he screams. The tape has already shown the German shepherd finding the man under an overturned couch in a dark back yard, the couch tumbling as the man leaped up and did a terrified dance with the dog locked onto his leg, the man obeying staccato commands to get back on the ground and show his hands.

Now, flat on his stomach, arms outstretched, whimpering, the man is dragged backward with each yank of the dog's collar by its police handler. When the shepherd's jaws finally unclench, another police officer flies into the frame to drop his knee hard between the man's shoulder blades and snap on handcuffs. Then, as the man lies moaning "my leg . . . leg . . . my leg," a male voice off-camera is clearly heard to say: "I love it."

"What do you think?" Don Cook asks me when the TV screen blackens in his law office high above Wilshire Boulevard. It is nearly two months before CBS News will show these images to the nation, rousing the Los Angeles Police Commission to announce a review of LAPD police dog practices, but Cook already senses the implications. In an era when nothing seems to matter much until there's live tape, Cook has just managed to dig up some, and he obviously considers it fresh ammunition in the war that he and his partner Robert Mann wage against what they consider to be the misconduct of Los Angeles K-9 units.

With their current allies--the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the civil-rights law firm of Litt, Marquez & Fajardo--Cook and Mann launched their latest offensive last summer and fall, co-filing class-action civil-rights suits that accuse the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department of using their animals, through "systematic policies and practices," in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

"Hundreds of people," the complaints charge, "particularly African-Americans and Latinos, have been viciously mauled and grievously injured by police dogs, without the police having probable cause to believe such individuals pose an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury, the constitutional standard of all other uses of deadly force."

If these charges and those video images, which Cook eventually helped feed to Geraldo Rivera as well as Dan Rather, seem like a treatment for "Rodney King: The Sequel," in fact, they are part of a more complicated picture. Consider this: the taped biting was neither staged nor secretly shot. It was an actual arrest filmed by an LAPD film crew for a local cable TV show on police techniques, and it came with a moral: "Next time, don't run from the police and hide," the young man, a 14-year-old car-theft suspect not subsequently charged, is told as we see him sitting in the squad car looking at his chewed-up shin.

The video image of Rodney G. King's beating on March 3, 1991, so clearly showed out-of-bounds police conduct that Police Chief Daryl F. Gates himself said it sickened him. By contrast, toward the end of the police dog video, Sgt. Mark Mooring, a founder of the LAPD K-9 program and the officer whose shepherd had done the biting, steps up to the microphone and says he feels great. He sums up: "Another suspect goes to jail, which is what it's all about."

Clearly, the philosophical division about police dogs in Los Angeles is wide. On one side stand those who are sounding alarms in the courts. "The dogs are instruments of terror," say Mann and Cook, who want their use severely restricted. On the other side are the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department, each warding off about 30 K-9 lawsuits charging negligence or abuse. Neither department will discuss specifics of any case, but both have official positions that boil down to this: We've done nothing wrong.

"The dogs are used to search and find people who we believe are felons or armed misdemeanors, and they've run away from police. A suspect who conceals himself and refuses our commands to surrender, I expect him to get bit," Lt. Pete Durham, head of the LAPD Metropolitan Division K-9 unit, told me last May before the class-action suits and the CBS report. Since then, his department and the city attorney have had "no comment," while Chief Gates has assured the public that the LAPD's dogs "are the sweetest, gentlest things you'll ever find," and "only bite if attacked."

"I'm going to be honest, the K-9 thing has a tremendous amount of liability for us," says Capt. Dan Burt, who oversees the Sheriff's Department's K-9 unit. "And the reason is one group of attorneys in this county apparently has made it their life's work to do away with K-9 operations."

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