Dog bite expert & animal behavior specialist

Richard H. Polsky, PhD, CDBC
Los Angeles, California

“Bringing the science of animal behavior to attorneys”

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Dog bite fatalities involving police canines

The widespread belief amongst police dog handlers is that their dogs do not constitute lethal force.  And in fact there is law supporting this Policebelief.   For instance, appellate decisions have ruled that police dogs do not constitute a lethal force (see Robinette v. Barnes, 854 F.2d 909, 102 ALR Fed. 605 (6th Cir. 1988); Fikes v. Cleghorn, 47 F.3d 1011 (9th Cir. 1995); Matthews v. Jones, 35 F.3d 1046 (6th Cir. (Ky.)

Nonetheless,  despite the above appellate rulings, from my perspective in  animal animal behavior, I believe that under the right circumstances police dogs can kill people. For example, this has the potential of happening when a police dog engages the suspect and is not in the immediate presence of the handler (therefore diminish control by the handler over the dog).  Under these circumstances a police dog may repeatedly bite a suspect.  And if any of these bites are inflicted to the head/neck area and then a person could be easily killed.

In fact, this is exactly what happened in the Robinette v. Barnes  incident.   The incident was summarized as follows in the published report:

 “A man suspected of being in the course of a commercial burglary, hiding inside a darkened building, was apprehended by a police dog who bit him on the neck. The suspect died shortly thereafter. For the reasons which follow, we agree with the district court that the use of a properly trained police dog to seize a felony suspect does not constitute deadly force. We also hold that even if the use of a police dog could constitute deadly force, the circumstances of the suspect’s apprehension justified the use of such force in this case. Thus, we affirm the award of summary judgment in favor of defendants.”

Although extremely rare, there are other reported dog bite fatalities involving police canines.  However, importantly note that I cannot verify all these incidences through Internet research.

  • The first case happen in Florida when the lady was killed by a police dog dog found that an abandoned. Reference: Palm Beach Post, October 21, 1990 “The damaged life, an Unnecessary death” Also noted in “The manner death of Lauren MacLeod.” Office of the medical examiner, state of Florida, District 15, April 6, 1990.  (Unverifiable through Internet research).
  •  Another incident reportedly happened to an infant in Florida when she was killed his father’s dog. The father was a cop and the handler of this police dog, and the incident happened when he with the infant unsupervised in the presence of the dog. Reported in the Orlando Sentinel. “Police dog bites, kills canine officer’s baby girl”. (unverifiable through Internet research).
  •  Finally, a police dog bite fatality incident may have happened in California when an 89-year-old man was found sleeping under a bush by a dog searching for a suspect. He was severely attacked, outside the immediate presence of the handler, and he died about three weeks later in hospital.  I served this in animal behavior expert in this matter.  The incident is therefore verifiable.  Read more about this incident here.

A dog bite fatality by a police K-9 is less likely to happen when the dog’s handler is nearby, thereby  putting the handler in a position to stop the attack (which often is difficult in itself). Moreover, in contrast to fatal dog attacks by domestic dogs inflicted to relatively defenseless people, such as the elderly or children, a disproportional amount of the victims of police dog attacks are young adult males. These people have greater ability to defend themselves against a highly aroused, attack trained police canine. And this decreases the chances of a dog bite fatality from happening.  Hence,  in large part because of who the victim is, police dog attacks rarely result in a fatality. Black  dog