Decades after Bull Connor used German Shepherds to attack civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, police in Los Angeles were still using dogs to harass the city’s black residents, with some officers allegedly referring to black teens as "dog biscuits." Back in 1996 the L.A. Times reported that at the peak of this abuse, in 1989, the LAPD's 15-person canine unit sent more suspects to the hospital than the entire rest of the department combined.
Since then, reforms have been put in place in both the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and the LAPD, and the bite rate has fallen substantially. But a new report from the Police Assessment Resource Center reveals that the L.A. County Sheriff's Department canine unit is still used largely when arresting people of color, and more often than is absolutely necessary.
In the first six months of 2013, 100 percent of the people bitten by L.A. County Sheriff's Department canines were black or hispanic, according to the report from PARC, which serves as special counsel to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. “While the number of annual bites of Anglos, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans has remained consistently low from 2004 through 2012,” the report states, “89 percent of the total bites in the same time period were of Latinos or Blacks. This 89 percent is an increase from a still troublesome 85 percent in the 1990s.”
The frequency with which police dogs are used against people of color isn't problematic simply for historical reasons. Police canines are considered by law enforcement experts to be one step below lethal force, as PARC notes in its report:
Those who have witnessed a bite understand the severity of this type of use of force. The dogs used by the CSD exert between 800 and 1,500 pounds per square inch when they bite—force the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals likened to having a limb run over by an automobile. A routine bite causes significant injury, and each bite incident carries with it the risk of permanent damage. In one study, for example, researchers found that canine bites resulted in hospital visits 67.5 percent of the time, while other uses of force, like batons or Tasers, resulted in hospital visits 22 percent of the time or less. These same researchers found claims of permanent physical disfigurement and injuries to bones, blood vessels, nerves, breasts, testicles, faces, noses and eyes (blindness). They opined that canine bites should be considered a level of force immediately below deadly force and equated a bite to an officer swinging a baton with three-centimeter spikes attached.
Despite the frequency with which dogs are used against people of color, PARC says it is "not arguing that deputies call for or deploy canines with a specific, conscious intent to single out persons because of their race or ethnicity"; and, acknowledges that "police operate within a society that continues to produce often unequal and unfair results." The report even concedes that "the likelihood for deployment may be crime-related." Nevertheless, PARC finds it noteworthy that the LACSD deploys dogs far more in black neighborhoods than white ones:
We observed, however, that large swathes of LASD’s jurisdiction, encompassing generally affluent areas with smaller minority populations, had few deployments or bites. Crime rates are lower in these areas, but the stark disparity leads us to wonder why canine deployments seem to occur disproportionately in less affluent areas with larger minority populations. As shown in Table 4, the five LASD stations with the highest number of bites (Century, South LA/Lennox, Compton, Lakewood, and Industry) had more bites, from January 2004 to June 2013, than all of the other 21 agencies or stations combined. Century Station,15 in particular, had 15 percent of the total bites for a total of 78 bites from January 2004 to June 2013. In contrast, the more affluent stations where Whites are the predominant ethnicity (La Crescenta, Altadena, Marina Del Rey, West Hollywood, and Lost Hills/Malibu) comprised about two percent of the total bites for a total of nine bites for the same time period.
If we assume that no single bite case over the last few years was the product of racial bias on the part of canine officers, is every bite case justified? Nope. PARC looked at reports from 2009-2013 in which a canine located and then bit a suspect, and concluded "that in roughly half of the cases, a bite might have been avoided." The report offers as an example of one such case, a burglary suspect in a church:
After announcements of the canine’s deployment were made over a public address system for roughly 15 minutes, the CSD searched the church for the suspect until the canine alerted them that a person was in a storage shed. Having no information about whether the person inside the shed might be armed, the CSD deployed a canine that located the suspect on the floor within the shed and bit him on the back.Because the suspect was clearly in the containment area, it appears that less harmful alternatives could have been attempted, including negotiation or tear gas. We asked more senior officials the Department their opinion, and they agreed that, generally, a suspect barricaded or hiding in a confined area like a shed or closet can often be extracted without a dog bite.We reviewed several other instances in which suspects ran into small, enclosed spaces, such as a closet or shed. The dog could not bite them because they were behind a closed door. Instead of attempting to bring the suspect out with tear gas, a stingball, a flash bang, or through negotiation, CSD opened the door and sent in the dog for the purpose of biting the suspects. If officers could open the door safely to send in the dog, they just as safely and easily could have used tear gas or other, less risky, and less potentially damaging force.
PARC's report concludes with a list of recommendations that, if taken seriously, could considerably reduce the use of a near-lethal weapon that's deployed almost exclusively against minorities. But it also includes this grain of salt: "Time and again, it has been shown that the power to control an elected sheriff is a near impossibility."