The family of Joseph Pettaway can testify to the reality that police violence takes many forms. Pettaway, a 51-year-old man, was asleep in a house he was helping to renovate in Montgomery, Alabama, when a neighbor called 911 to report a burglary. A K-9 handler and his dog responded to the call, and when the dog found Pettaway asleep in the dark house, it attacked. It took almost two minutes for the handler to get control of the dog, but the damage was done. Pettaway had suffered a torn artery in the groin, and he died minutes later.
Pettaway’s family is suing the city, but after two years, they have not secured the public release of the police bodycam video because the city contends it could cause “embarrassment” for officers acting in good faith or foment “civil unrest.”
The use of police dogs, much like the use of chokeholds, stun guns, and chemical agents, is not generally thought of as lethal force, and so it is typically less regulated and subject to less oversight, despite the fact that many of these dogs have jaws and teeth strong enough to puncture sheet metal. Because police deploy dogs in a wide variety of scenarios, including non-violent incidents like the one that killed Pettaway, the dogs bite thousands of Americans each year, including innocent bystanders and even the dog handlers themselves.
A joint investigation by The Marshall Project, AL.com, IndyStar, and the Invisible Institute of Chicago examined data from across the U.S., including police departments of the 20 largest cities in America and over 140 cases where dog bites caused serious harm.
The study interviewed victims, lawyers, trainers, police officials, and doctors, and it reviewed police reports, medical studies, lawsuits, and dog bite videos from 2017-2019.
The data reveal tremendous variety across the country in how and when police dogs are used, and even though there were bites in nearly every state during the period studied, people are far more likely to get bit in some jurisdictions. Chicago, for example, restricts the deployment of K-9 teams and as a result had only one bite. Washington, D.C., Seattle, and New York City limit their use to felony cases and over the relevant years reported five, 23, and 24 bites, respectively.
By contrast, Indianapolis had 220 bites, Los Angeles more than 200, Phoenix 169, and the Jacksonville, Florida, Sheriff’s Department 160.
Men are most often the victims of dog bites, and non-Whites are bit more often than Whites.
Investigations into the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department found that almost no White people were bit, and a recent study published by the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine found that of the 3,600 Americans admitted to the emergency room each year because of police dog bites almost all were male and Blacks were overrepresented.
Police departments argue that dogs are essential tools for finding fleeing suspects and searching dark, narrow spaces that pose special danger for officers, and with proper training and supervision, dogs bite only a fraction of the times they are used.
Law enforcement agencies use about 1,000 dogs for everything from tracking to sniffing for drugs or explosives, according to the U.S. Police Canine Association. No group, however, tracks dog use, bites, or who is bitten, and there are no national standards for police dog deployment.
Despite the recent push for greater police accountability, no consensus exists on the future of police dog use or the compensation of people unjustly bitten.
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