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A Brief History of K-9 Units in Law Enforcement

by Kevin W. Bliss

The history of canine use in modern day policing began in the 1950s and ‘60s as a response to the “Negro problem” and has been used as a tool to “civilize the savagery of urban orders,” according to civil rights advocates of that time.

Societies began experimenting with canines in law enforcement as early as 1870 in England, followed by Paris in 1910. New York introduced canines in patrol units in 1907. And, America institutionalized the practice with the 1954 decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-’56.

By the early 1960s, 24 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. employed canine units (K-9). The breed preferred by law enforcement was the German shepherd or Alsatian because of their perceived intelligence. The same dogs were utilized in World War II by Germany to help guard concentration camps and airports. They carried the same reputation as the pit bulls of the 1990s.

To this day, the imagery of racial tension in the U.S. is exemplified in photos of police dogs attacking demonstrators during desegregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. That racial weaponization of K-9 units has been repeated in several other incidents through the years such as Abu Grahib in the early 2000s and Ferguson, Alabama, in 2014.

Civil rights advocates of the ‘50s and ‘60s stated dogs were deployed as tools to “civilize the savagery of urban order by pacifying urban space,” to dehumanize people of color, and “police the material and symbolic boundaries of the color lines.”

“The mystical power of the police dog ... was its apparent ability to recognize the boundaries in need of protection – white propertied bodies – from those darker bodies prowling on the boundaries of white bourgeois order.”

K-9 units were portrayed as favored extensions of police in crime fighting and riot control. They were considered companions with the desirable qualities of obedience, loyalty, courage, and discipline. Yet, opinions of their efficacy were polarized when the public understood attack training focused primarily on skin color while newspapers lauded their role in such actions as the 1961 protests in the segregated public library of Jackson, Mississippi.


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