A collaborative team of journalists from The Marshall Project, AL.com, IndyStar and the Invisible Institute spent a year exploring a topic that often gets overlooked in discussions of police brutality: dog attacks. How many people get attacked by K9 units every year? How many die? What happens after they get bitten by an angry police dog?
Spoiler alert: victims of police dog attacks are disproportionately male and disproportionately black, and the dogs are often used in cases of minor infractions such as traffic violations and trespassing. There's little oversight for training, and even less accountability for the victims of these vicious dog attacks.
Police dog bites can be more like shark attacks than nips from a family pet, according to experts and medical researchers. A dog chewed on an Indiana man's neck for 30 seconds, puncturing his trachea and slicing his carotid artery. A dog ripped off an Arizona man's face. A police dog in California took off a man's testicle. Dog bites cause more hospital visits than any other use of force by police, according to a 2008 academic analysis of 30 departments.
Many people bitten were unarmed, accused of non-violent crimes or weren't suspects at all. Court records show cases often start as minor incidents—a problem with a license plate, a claim of public urination, a man looking for a lost cat. Although some departments, like Seattle, Oakland, California, and St. Paul, Minnesota, now have strict criteria about when dogs can bite, many continue to give officers wide discretion.
For many bite victims, there's little accountability or compensation. Federal civil rights laws don't typically cover innocent bystanders. In many parts of the country, criminal suspects can't bring federal claims if they plead guilty or are convicted of a crime related to the biting incident. And even when victims can bring cases, lawyers say they struggle because jurors tend to love police dogs—something they call the Lassie effect.
The only thing I'd like to see more of from this is information about how these dogs are trained, how they're treated while they're part of the Police Force, and what happens to them afterward. But one harrowing thing will do for now, I guess.
When Police Violence is a dog bite [Abbie Vansickle, Challen Stephens, Ryan Martin, Dana Brozost-Kelleher, and Andrew Fan / The Marshall Project]
Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Azaria E. Foster (Public Domain)