Volume 111

The Racialized Violence of Police Canine Force

by Madalyn K. Wasilczuk

Two white men stand over a screaming Black teenager. A dog bites into the boy’s arm, thrashing its head back and forth, as the men egg the dog on, “Get ‘im, boy. Get ‘im.” The teenager heaves deep sobs, begging them to release him from the dog’s jaws. It is 2019, and I am sitting in my offce watching discovery for a clinic case on which I am the supervising attorney. In the body camera video, the men are arresting a boy who had been the passenger in a car reported stolen. The boy had no weapons, and the police had no concrete reason to suspect he did. Yet the police demanded that he lie completely still with his hands behind his back before they would remove the dog’s gnashing teeth from the boy’s body. Footnote #1 content: This story is based on my viewing of police body camera video from a police dog apprehension by the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I chose to share this scene because police reports often mask the brutality of police dog “apprehensions.” In court documents, the child was described as having “minor dog bites.” In addition, court opinions are complicit in their sanitized renderings of police dog attacks. See, e.g., Jarvela v. Washtenaw County, 40 F.4th 761, 764 (6th Cir. 2022) (“Among the various forms of force available to law enforcement, [canine force] is a comparatively measured application of force . . . .”); Miller v. Clark County, 340 F.3d 959, 964 (9th Cir. 2003) (describing the dog as “trained to bite and hold a suspect’s arm or leg, not to maul a suspect”); Lowry v. City of San Diego, 858 F.3d 1248, 1254, 1257 (9th Cir. 2017) (en banc) (categorizing canine force as “moderate” and referring to dog biting through woman’s lip as “initial contact”); Dastinot v. Watkins, No. 18-cv-00166, 2023 WL 121221, at *3 (D. Me. Jan. 6, 2023) (referring to dog’s continued bite as “continu[ing] to hold Plaintiff by the knee”); Rainey v. Patton, 534 F. App’x 391, 394 n.2 (6th Cir. 2013) (“Officer Patton explained that his dog is not trained to ‘attack’ suspects, but was instead trained to bite and hold a suspect when: (1) the dog is sent to track and apprehend the suspect or (2) the suspect moves defensively.”). Some common terms, including the term “canine force” which appears in the title of this Article, can work to sanitize “offcers’ attempts to exercise control over community members through the application, or threatened application, of physical power, pain, injury, or death.” Seth W. Stoughton, Accountability and Enhancement: The Dual Objectives of Use-of-Force Review, in RETHINKING AND REFORMING AMERICAN POLICING: LEADERSHIP CHALLENGES AND FUTURE OPPORTUNITIES 227, 230 (Joseph A. Schafer & Richard W. Myers eds., 2022) (quoting Seth W. Stoughton, The Regulation of Police Violence, in CRITICAL ISSUES IN POLICING: CONTEMPORARY READINGS 321, 322 (Roger G. Dunham et al. eds., 2021)). For a complicating view on the line between witness and spectator and reasons not to repeat scenes of Black suffering, see SAIDIYA V. HARTMAN, SCENES OF SUBJECTION: TERROR, SLAVERY, AND SELF-MAKING IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA 3–4 (1997). From 2017 to 2019, the Baton Rouge police would use dogs to bite teenagers, on average, once every three weeks. Footnote #2 content: Bryn Stole & Grace Toohey, The City Where Police Unleash Dogs on Black Teens, MARSHALL PROJECT (Feb. 12, 2021, 6:00 AM), https://www.themarshallproject.org/2021/02/12/the-city-wherepolice-unleash-dogs-on-black-teens [https://perma.cc/JA6T-REY3]. Many of those children became my clients in delinquency proceedings.

Police commonly use dogs as enslavers did: to catch people running away. Footnote #3 content: See infra Sections I.A–I.B. As of 2007, “[29%] of local police departments, employing 77% of all offcers, used dogs for law enforcement.” Footnote #4 content: BRIAN A. REAVES, BUREAU OF JUST. STAT., U.S. DOJ, NCJ 231174, LOCAL POLICE DEPARTMENTS, 2007, at 20 (2011), https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/lpd07.pdf [https://perma. cc/UJ4Q-Z5ZF].   Thousands have been caught on the sharp end of this form of police violence. A 2019 study culled 32,951 “legal intervention” dog bites documented by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) database from 2005 to 2013. Footnote #5 content: See Randall T. Loder & Cory Meixner, The Demographics of Dog Bites Due to K-9 (Legal Intervention) in the United States, 65 J. FORENSIC & LEGAL MED. 9, 9–14 (2019). There are some limitations caused by the use of the NEISS database in this study, acknowledged by the authors. Id. at 10. For instance, the study only includes canine bites that resulted in emergency room treatment and not those where treatment was refused or occurred outside of emergency rooms. Id. For example, according to the authors, “[i]n Montgomery County, Maryland, only 57 of 166 (34.3%) K-9 bite victims received treatment in an [emergency department].” Id. (footnote omitted). They note that if that statistic were accurate for the locations of the hospitals covered by NEISS, the estimated total number of K-9 bites during the time period of the study would be 93,443, or about 10,400 per year. Id. Despite widespread use, police canine violence is absent from most conversations about police reform. Footnote #6 content: See, e.g., id. at 9 (“There is a paucity of literature on K-9 dog bites.”); Christy E. Lopez, Opinion, Don’t Overlook One of the Most Brutal and Unnecessary Parts of Policing: Police Dogs, WASH. POST (July 6, 2020, 2:02 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/07/06/police-dogs-areproblem-that-needs-fxing/ (advocating for a conversation about abolishing police apprehension dogs). Scholarly discussion of this use of force is also uncommon. Ian T. Adams, Scott M. Mourtgos, Kyle D. McLean & Geoffrey P. Alpert, De-Fanged, J. EXPERIMENTAL CRIMINOLOGY, Jan. 2023 (“Despite prolonged use, the scholarship on K9s is scant . . . .”)  

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