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L.A. Finds Mixed Results in Curbing Police Dog Bites

Policing: LAPD has reduced incidents significantly in 1990s. Sheriff's Department shows much slower turnabout.


A recent standoff in Sierra Madre showcased police dogs at their best: A pair of Los Angeles County sheriff's canines shrugged off knife wounds to drag a suspect from his hiding place, pulling him out without injury to the man or the officers.

The suspect was taken into custody without further incident. And the injured dogs, Ronnie and Dax, got rawhide bones from the city government in return for their derring-do.

Unfortunately, police dog cases don't always conclude that way. All too often, they end as they did for Dathan Brown, who was mauled by a dog in 1991 while a sheriff's handler watched. Or for Manuel Nevarez, who was attacked by a dog in 1992 even though deputies never warned him that he might be bitten if he did not give up.

"The level of carnage," said Donald W. Cook, a leading plaintiff's lawyer in police dog cases, "can be incredible."

For more than a decade, police in Southern California have unleashed dogs on suspects, inflicting injuries at rates far higher than those associated with batons, tear gas or even guns. Faced with complaints and lawsuits, many police departments have modified their use of the dogs. The sometimes conflicting approaches that have resulted are reflected in the philosophies of Southern California's two largest law enforcement agencies, the Sheriff's Department and the LAPD.

Today, civil libertarians and plaintiffs' lawyers credit the Los Angeles Police Department with a historic turnabout in its use of police dogs. They are harder on the Sheriff's Department. But after years of making little progress toward reducing dog bites, the department is also registering modest gains, soon-to-be released statistics suggest. Its critics say the progress is overdue, but conceded that they see subtle signs of improvement in an area that has long been the source of bitter debate.

'Dog Biscuits'

In the late 1980s, LAPD dogs were biting more than 300 suspects a year, causing more injuries than all other forms of force combined. In 1989, for instance, the thousands of LAPD officers who worked regular patrol duties arrested about 300,000 people and sent about 70 of them to the hospital. The 15 or 16 who worked in the department's canine unit made about 650 arrests, and sent 100 of those to the hospital--more serious injuries than the entire rest of the LAPD combined.

Moreover, critics charged that the Police Department was using the dogs with abandon in poor and minority neighborhoods, dispatching them more frequently in those areas and injuring far more black and Latino suspects than white suspects.

"The racial part of this story was astounding," said Constance L. Rice of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, who said some officers referred to black suspects as "dog biscuits."

Other elements of symbolism were equally chilling. One of the region's leading suppliers of police dogs was a kennel in Riverside named "Adlerhorst." German for "eagle's nest," "Adlerhorst" was the name of Adolf Hitler's retreat, and although that kennel never supplied the LAPD with dogs, it did sell dogs to other police agencies and its name outraged lawyers and others.

Amid mounting criticism, the LAPD began to reform its canine policies in the early 1990s. Although some dispute the effect of those changes, Cook and others say bites are down from 350 a year to about 35.

"It was so easy to stop," said Cook. "That tells you something about the problem."

The Sheriff's Department, meanwhile, has resisted one of the changes that the LAPD adopted, the shift from a so-called "find-and-bite" policy to a "find-and-bark" approach. Sheriff's officials concede that their dogs bite more frequently than the LAPD's, but say the policy has little to do with that.

"They are trained to bite at movement, and they will bite if the suspect moves. That's true anywhere," regardless of a find-and-bite or find-and-bark policy, said Sgt. William Thompson, a veteran of the Sheriff's Department canine unit.

Rather than the dog policy, Thompson and other sheriff's officials attribute the discrepancy with LAPD to other factors: the different terrain that the Sheriff's Department covers, the size of its geographic area, the fact that its canine unit operates 24 hours a day--as opposed to LAPD's, which works only at night--and the nature of the crimes it combats with dogs.

Specifically, the LAPD sends dogs in cases where the alleged offense is automobile theft, a crime the Sheriff's Department does not consider serious enough to routinely warrant dogs. The result, according to the Sheriff's Department: The LAPD is able to nab a large number of suspects who give up easily, pushing down that department's bite rate and making the sheriff's look artificially high by comparison.

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