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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 American policing began in the 1950s and 1960s, during the tumultuous Civil Rights Era and has since been used as a tool to “civilize the savagery of urban order by pacifying urban space,” according to many civil rights advocates.

Societies began experimenting with canines in law enforcement as early as 1870 in England, followed by Paris in 1910. America institutionalized the practice with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-’56.

By the early 1960s, 24 law enforcement agencies across the United States carried canine units (referred to as K-9). The preferred breed was the German Shepherd, or also known as an Alsatian, because of their perceived intelligence. The German Shepherd was used by the Germans in World War II to help guard the nation’s concentration camps and airports. As a result, the German Shepherd initially had a bad reputation in America.

To this day, imagery of racial tension in the United States is exemplified with iconic photos of police dogs attacking demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. That racial weaponization of K-9 units against select groups has been repeated in other chapters of American history such as Abu Grahib in the early 2000s.

Civil rights advocates have claimed dogs were deployed as tools meant to dehumanize people of color and “police the mystical and symbolic boundaries of the color lines.”

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

K-9 units have been portrayed as favored extensions of police in crime fighting and riot control. They are considered companions with the desirable traits of obedience, loyalty, courage, and discipline. Yet, opinions of their efficacy were polarized with the public understanding that attack training focused primarily on skin color while newspapers lauded their role in protest moderation.

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