People often file lawsuits against police departments because they feel their civil rights were violated. One way in which this can happen is through the deployment of the police K-9 who excessively bites a person during suspect apprehension.
Lawsuits against police K-9 departments and their handlers are difficult to win. One reason for this is because police may not represent accurately what happened during any given incident. Another reason is that the plaintiffs who file lawsuits are often minorities and these people may not present themselves well before a jury. Police departments vigorously defend their canine handlers and their partners.
Animal behavior issues in police dog bite lawsuits usually involve those that deal with excessive force caused the bite and hold technique. In other instances, animal behavior issues relate to the alleged lack of control the handler had over his dog, the dog’s past training records, or that the police K-9 did not possess the proper temperament for subject apprehension.
Below, I provide summaries from selected examples of verdicts and settlements in police dog bite lawsuits.
- A settlement was reached in California for $1.5 million resulting from an attack by a Belgian Melinois on an 89-year-old man. The canine located and severely attacked a man sleeping underneath a bush. The dog had been deployed to search for a suspect who had just robbed a 7-Eleven store. Police quickly realized that the dog apprehended the wrong suspect. The man was severely injured and about three weeks later died in hospital possibly in part as a result of the injuries he sustained in the dog attack.
- In another California lawsuit, and man was rightfully stopped by police and questioned. However, shortly there after a confrontation broke out between the cops and the suspect. A police K-9 was called for backup support. When the K-9 arrived, the handler stated that he warned the suspect that the dog would be released. After the dog was released, it continued its attack on the man for over 60 seconds. Police justified the duration of the attack because the man continued to struggle. Alternatively, dog’s handler probably had difficulty in stopping the attack or he possibly intentionally let the attack continue. The man was was severely injured. This case settled for $145,000. Counsel for the plaintiff told me that the case settled only at the insistence of the plaintiff.
- In Lodi, California, a police canine jumped out of the patrol car and attacked a man who police had just been arrested. The police chief described the incident as an “accident”. This was no accident, however. The lawsuit settled for $225,000.
- A lawsuit was filed against the city of San Diego for theuse of excessive force. The fact pattern was as follows: The plaintiff had fallen asleep on the couch in the office suite where she worked in downtown San Diego. Police were called to the office building because a burglary alarm had sounded. The police entered the office building led by their canine. The canine under the handler’s instructions began to search the building and eventually found the plaintiff sleeping on the couch. The canine inflicted a single bite to her lip The handler called the dog off after quickly realizing she was not the robbery suspect. The plaintiff sued citing excessive force but subsequently the court granted summary judgment in favor the city of San Diego. However, the Ninth Circuit in California in 2016 overturned this decision. The appellate ruling was that given the circumstances present at the time of the incident excessive force was applied to the victim by the police K-9.
- In another lawsuit filed against the City of San Diego for wrongful death, the police shot and killed a mentally ill man. A resident who lived with a man summoned police because he was acting erratically. When police arrived the man became combative and he tried to stab the police K-9 with a pair scissors.The police shot and killed the man in defense of their dog. The case went to trial and a defense verdict was rendered.
- A defense verdict was also rendered in federal lawsuit filed in Camden County, New Jersey. The lawsuit alleged that excessive force was applied to the plaintiff as a result of an incident involving a police dog from the Atlantic City Police Department. The plaintiff was accused of snatching a purse from a lady at a casino on the Boardwalk. Police went looking for the suspect and found the plaintiff in an alleyway. He had already ditched the purse. A police dog was called in for backup. After the police dog arrived, versions of eventsdiffer considerably between the suspect and the police. The police claimed the suspect was combative and therefore they were justified in releasing the dog. A trial, the suspect testified that he had surrendered and was cooperative. The attack by the dog on the suspect lasted for about a minute and he was hospitalized for several days. A jury acquitted the police department of excessive force.
- In South-central Los Angeles a case want before a jury in federal court because of the allegations of excessive force by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. In this instance, a police K-9 was deployed to search for a suspect in an attempted car theft. The canine found the suspect hiding underneath another car about a half a mile away. The versions of the police and the plaintiff differed as to what happened next . The plaintiff claimed that he surrendered and voluntarily came out from underneath the car. The police version was that the dog dragged the man into the open from underneath the car and continue to bite him after he was clear of the car. The attack by the police K-9 on him lasted for over a minute. Plaintiffs believed that that there was no need to release the dog on the suspect because he had surrendered. Nonetheless, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of the defense.
- In Lakewood, Washington in 2011, a police canine attacked an innocent bystander taking a walk. The case settled for $225,000 in 2014. Discovery showed that the police K-9 involved in this incident had previously attacked other innocent bystanders.
The above summaries reflect a sample of some of the cases I’m aware of either through my work as a police dog animal behavior expert or through the news stories published on the Internet. In general, in order to prevail in these kinds of cases, the plaintiff needs to establish that handler of the dog lost control of the dog and this allowed the dog to bite excessively. This makes sense from an animal behavior perspective. For example, when deployed in the field for suspect apprehension these kind of dogs are eager to attack, motivationally they are “souped-up”, and once an attack starts it is difficult to stop. Moreover, plaintiffs should consider using animal behavior expert opinion to argue that many police canines are inherently dangerous and that when deployed in the field these kind of dogs are prone to behavioral error.