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Necessary Weapons, or Excessive Force?

Judges have sided with police who use dogs to bite and hold suspects. But critics say the practice often amounts to brutality.

February 29, 1996|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Suppose the police chase a suspect, corner him and whack him with a nightstick to subdue him.

That is a proper and legal arrest. However, if they keep pounding him needlessly once he has been subdued, his constitutional rights are violated, the federal courts have said. A jury in Los Angeles applied that well-settled rule in convicting two Los Angeles Police Department officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King.

But suppose the officers sic a German shepherd on the suspect. And suppose the dog finds its quarry and repeatedly bites him, leaving him bloody and battered, with the flesh of his arm torn to the bone and part of his nose torn off.

Federal judges have refused to declare such brutal force unconstitutional.

Southern California leads the nation in police dog-bite lawsuits, yet all this litigation has succeeded only in revealing a loophole in the law. While dogs are a weapon used by the police, judges have been reluctant to rule that injuries inflicted by police dogs should be deemed an excessive use of force.

And the reason was aptly summed up by former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates.

"It was the animal that imposed the injury, not the human being," Gates said in defending his officers in a deposition filed in one case.

That legal rule has been upheld four times in the past year in dog-bite cases that began in Southern California and reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In each case, judges said that since there was "no clearly established law" governing dog bites, departments were immune from suits by suspects who said they were mauled during an arrest.

One case came from a Santa Ana man who nearly had his arm chewed off after an arrest for drunken driving. Another came from a community college instructor from Santa Monica who had his leg badly bitten--without even leaving his home.

"This is a Southern California phenomenon," said Temple University professor James A. Fyfe. "I know of no other place in the country where they are using dogs to chew people up." A former New York City policeman, he now testifies against police departments in cases of alleged brutality.

Lawyers who represent the police say dogs are an effective weapon against fleeing suspects who are a danger both to the officers and to bystanders. And the suspects who are injured have only themselves to blame, they say.

"Put yourself in the position of the officer at the scene. Do you want a guy to come out and shoot, or do you want the dog to surprise the guy and bite him?" asked Los Angeles County attorney Roger Granbo. "The dogs are trained to latch onto the bite and to hold. And yes, if you struggle, you're going to get hurt."

Police dogs came into wide use in the early 1980s because of their extraordinary ability to find hidden suspects. When a fleeing felon runs into a junkyard or the woods, officers can call a canine unit. Usually, within minutes, a trained dog can flush out the suspect.

No one disputes the use of dogs as hunters. The controversy comes when the dogs bite suspects during an arrest.

In the 1980s, most police agencies across the country followed what was referred to as a "find and hold" policy. Dogs were trained to bite the suspect and hold firm with their teeth. This was said to have the advantage of immobilizing someone until an officer could handcuff him.

But lawsuits and bad publicity over dog attacks in Philadelphia, Miami and other cities prompted a gradual shift in policy. Increasingly, departments have adopted "find and bark" policies, whereby the dogs are trained to find the suspect and bark out his location. In most instances, the animals are not allowed to bite unless the suspect attacks them or an officer.

Until 1992, the Los Angeles Police Department had allowed its dogs to bite fleeing suspects. Upon arriving from Philadelphia, Police Chief Willie L. Williams announced the department was changing to "find and bark."

Last year, the Los Angeles City Council agreed to pay $3.6 million to settle a class-action claim brought by 55 bite victims, most petty criminals. The incidents occurred before the policy change.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union amassed data on the hundreds of people--most Latino or black--who were bitten by LAPD dogs between 1990 and 1992. They charged that Los Angeles police had trained dogs "to attack and maul" suspects. The dogs were "routinely sent out in nonviolent situations," said attorney Barry Litt.

Before 1992, "the 15 LAPD dog handlers put more persons in the hospital each year than the rest of the 8,450-member LAPD combined," the suit said.

Since the change, even critics say the LAPD's dogs have had a good record. In the agreement that settled the suit, the department said it would allow dogs to attack and bite only when the suspect posed "an imminent danger to officers and the community." That policy brought the annual bite total, which had peaked at more than 300, down to fewer than 30.

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