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Feds rebuke ‘excruciating’ use of police dogs in Louisville, LMPD account inconsistent

Police K9 sign on wall outside canine training center
Ryland Barton
A sign outside the entrance to LMPD's canine training center on Robards Court.

A 14-year-old boy was lying face down in the grass, pleading for help, when a Louisville Metro Police Department officer ordered his dog to bite him at least seven times without warning, according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice report.

At one point during the January 2019 incident, the officer shouted “Stop fighting my dog!”, despite video evidence showing the Black teen lying with one arm behind his back and the other arm in the dog’s mouth, the report stated. His injuries required hospital treatment.

The USDOJ report also cited an April 2018 encounter involving an LMPD officer and canine searching the basement of a house for an alleged probation violator.

When the dog located the man near a sofa, the officer flipped it over and ordered his dog to bite the man, who was lying on his back with his hands up, according to the report.

The man stayed on the ground, kept his hands where the officer could see them, and tried to comply with the officer’s orders while the dog bit him, the report stated. Still, the officer allowed his dog to continue biting the man’s right foot for 20 seconds. When the officer finally commanded the dog to release, the dog kept biting the man for another 25 seconds, according to the report. He too required hospital care.

Police canine behind fence at LMPD training facility
R.G. Dunlop
A police dog behind the wire fence at the LMPD's canine training unit in the Watterson Park neighborhood.

The USDOJ report, issued on March 8, followed a 22-month civil rights investigation of LMPD that found a litany of shortcomings in the police department. They included weak oversight, unsafe use of tasers, invalid search warrants, unlawful traffic and pedestrian stops and dangerous neck restraints.

The report also cited “serious concerns” about the department’s canine unit.

In both incidents involving LMPD canines, the report concluded that the officers should not have ordered their dogs to bite the people involved, because they were trying to comply with the police and were not resisting.

The officers’ delay in ordering the dogs to stop biting violated the victims’ constitutional right to be free from the use of excessive force, the report stated.

“We have serious concerns that these uses of force were punitive, reflecting a dangerous lack of self-control by the officers and subjecting these individuals to excruciating uses of force far beyond lawful limits,” the report concluded.

“Officers lack critical guidance about the constitutional limits on deploying dogs. Deficiencies in LMPD’s canine policy likely contribute to officers’ unconstitutional conduct and tactically unsound practices.”

But documents provided by Louisville police to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting in response to an open-records request provide very different versions of the two incidents outlined in the USDOJ report. The LMPD documents offer no hint of wrongdoing, or even questionable conduct, by police or their dogs.

In the case of the 14-year-old, police records stated that the officer gave “continuous warnings” before the dog found the youth lying behind a tree and bit him in the left shoulder. That contradicts the USDOJ finding that no warning was given prior to the dog attack.

And contrary to the Justice Department’s finding that the youth was repeatedly bitten despite being submissive and begging for help, the police records state that “the suspect did not give himself up to police,” and that the dog “simply engaged” him and was removed “once compliance was gained.”

LMPD’s account of the incident involving the man in the basement also deviated from the USDOJ’s version of events. According to police records, “two loud verbal warnings'' were given at the basement door before the dog “engaged” the man hiding behind the sofa until “compliance was gained,” inflicting “minor visible physical injury.” Then the man was taken into custody “without further incident.”

There is no reference in the police records to the man lying on his back with his hands in the air and not resisting, as the Justice Department found had occurred. And the warnings that the police department said were given were not mentioned in the USDOJ report.

“The inconsistencies between the Louisville Metro Police Department officers’ description of their own use of force and the USDOJ’s description of said force are such that a reader would think they described different situations,” said Katie Bennett, a Minneapolis lawyer who has represented several victims of police dog attacks and who reviewed the documents at KyCIR’s request.

“The officers omit details about each suspect’s behavior in obvious attempts to justify the use of force. The officers also provide a watered-down version of the K9 attacks and the resulting injuries. The truth isn’t the LMPD records.”

Neither the USDOJ report nor the LMPD documents showed the names of the people bitten by the police dogs or the locations of the incidents. When KyCIR asked the police department for them, LMPD provided documents with the names redacted.
The Justice Department declined to comment on its report. And the USDOJ did not respond to a request from KyCIR to discuss the apparent discrepancies between the city’s accounts of the two police canine attacks and the Justice Department’s descriptions of what occurred.

A third case involving an LMPD canine attack, not mentioned in the USDOJ report, was resolved in 2018, when the city paid $32,500 to settle a lawsuit filed by a woman who claimed that her 14-year-old son was bitten by a police dog after officers improperly sent the dog into the family’s home.

Alisa Hickerson said her family was sleeping when police were dispatched to her home, believing there had been a break-in, court records show. Officers told the dog to go inside, where it “assaulted” the Black teen, who suffered bite wounds to his head and arms, and who was handcuffed while in his pajamas, according to the lawsuit.

The officers were never disciplined or investigated in connection with the July 2016 incident, according to the city’s response to a request from KyCIR.

The USDOJ and the city have agreed to address the Justice Department’s findings via a “consent decree,” a court-enforced reform plan, rather than through litigation. In response to questions from KyCIR, a police department spokesperson said that because of the city’s agreement with the Justice Department, LMPD “cannot comment on the specifics within the report.”

David Douglass, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and co-founder of Effective Law Enforcement for All, a police reform non-profit, told KyCIR that while LMPD could in theory hold individual officers responsible for actions outlined in the Justice Department report, that doesn’t happen very often.

That’s because USDOJ investigations often find that police departments are “not properly holding officers accountable,” said Douglass, who is a deputy monitor of a consent decree involving the New Orleans Police Department. And in fact, the USDOJ report on the Louisville police department concluded that “deficiencies in policies, training, supervision, and accountability contribute to LMPD and Louisville Metro’s unlawful conduct.”

Individual victims could sue the police department or its officers, said Douglass. And while the Justice Department could prosecute officers for alleged misconduct, he said such cases are “often very difficult” to prove.

Little oversight of of police canine use

While Louisville police officials said they’re aware of the issues raised in the USDOJ report, it’s unclear what steps they intend to take to reform the department’s canine policy. The statement provided by LMPD said only that the department’s commitment to reform “includes a robust evaluation of policy and procedures, including our canine unit policy and operations.”

USDOJ staff are holding meetings in Louisville this monthfor the public to weigh in how LMPD should respond to the report’s findings and improve public safety.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at a press conference in Louisville Metro Hall. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke is standing behind him.
J. Tyler Franklin
At a press conference today in Louisville, Attorney General Merrick Garland presented findings from the Department of Justice’s investigation into LMPD's pattern of civil rights violations.

Prior to its report being finalized, the Justice Department said LMPD had already made some positive policy changes, including a ban on no-knock search warrants, starting a pilot program for behavioral health professionals to respond to some 911 calls, expanding community-based violence prevention services and taking steps to support officers’ health and wellness.

“Nevertheless, much work remains to ensure that the city and its police department comply with federal law,” the report concluded.

The report did not mention any constructive steps taken by LMPD involving its use of police dogs.

And of the 36 “remedial measures” recommended in the USDOJ report, just one mentioned police dogs, and then only in passing. It said new LMPD use-of-force training should provide “clear guidance to officers about when to use the different force options and explicitly address the dangers of neck restraints, canines, and tasers.”

LMPD’s canine unit has 13 dogs, with four more assigned elsewhere in the department.

From January 2016 to October 2019, police department supervisors submitted documents showing 71 incidents involving a “canine bite,” according to the Justice Department report, which did not indicate how the supervisors handled those incidents.

But the report also concluded that LMPD supervisors “regularly fail to identify unlawful dog bites when they occur.”

There are other inconsistencies as well involving the Justice Department report and LMPD documents.

For example, the USDOJ report said that Louisville police department’s 899-page Standard Operating Procedures manual “does not refer to dogs as a use of force option, and does not state that the use of a dog must be reasonable or when an officer should order a dog to stop biting.”

“Indeed, the word ‘bite’ does not appear anywhere in the policy,” the report stated.

But LMPD’s 17-page Canine Unit Operations Manual refers three times to dogs as a use of force option. And the word “bite” appears three times in the manual, including the handler’s required verbal warning to a suspect that “when my dog finds you, he could bite you.”

The Canine Unit Operations Manual is mentioned twice in the police department’s policy and procedures, so presumably the Justice Department was, or should have been, aware of it.

Both the city and the Justice Department declined to answer questions about whether the department had access to the canine operations manual.

Police canine cruiser parked outside of training facility.
An LMPD police canine cruiser.

Using police dogs to apprehend suspects often unnecessary

Although the Justice Department report concluded that LMPD “unlawfully uses race in its enforcement activities,” it did not specifically cite any incidents involving police dogs as being racially motivated.

Christy Lopez, a professor at Georgetown University’s law school who reviewed the report at KyCIR’s request, said it doesn’t clearly link LMPD police dog attacks to race.

“But given the other indicia of racial discrimination the Department of Justice found within this police department, and the problems they found with their use of canines, it certainly should raise concerns that the use of police dogs in Louisville is racialized as well,” she said.

Lopez, a former Department of Justice attorney who focused on issues related to policing and civil rights, also said that “using police dogs to attack people is barbaric.”

“It's a relic that should have gone out with Jim Crow laws,” she said.

The LMPD statement provided to KyCIR said LMPD’s policy review process “involves analyzing national best practices as well as policy and procedures from other police departments.” But the statement offered no details about those best practices pertaining to LMPD’s canines.

Nor did the USDOJ report specifically address what the Justice Department considers “best practices” for the use of police dogs, or even what good canine policy amounts to.

Blue LMPD canine sign outside training facility
R.G. Dunlop
A sign outside LMPD's police canine training facility in the Watterson Park neighborhood.

Don Slavik, executive director of the United States Police Canine Association, said best practices for the use of police canines consist of three things: proper supervision, including someone overseeing the canine handler; proper policies, or guidelines, for police officers; and proper training, both for the dog and the dog’s handler.

“The handler needs to be trained in decision making. And then they (the dog and its handler) have to be trained as a team to work together.” Slavik said.

Slavik also said that while he believes a police dog’s primary mission is “locating,” whether it be drugs, a missing person, or a criminal suspect, using the dog for apprehension may sometimes be necessary if other attempts to deescalate the situation don’t work.

“If somebody has a gun and is threatening somebody, you may have to use the dog,” he said. “It depends on each situation.”

And the Justice Department report asserts that in police departments nationwide, “officers legitimately use dogs to locate people suspected of crimes and bring them into custody.”

But that approach conflicts with proposals in recent years by a few cities and states, including California, to ban the use of police canines to help make arrests. Lopez and Bennett, the Minneapolis lawyer, both said Louisville’s department should do likewise.

They told KyCIR that the best way for LMPD to confront problems with its police dogs is to limit their use to searching for drugs and missing people.

“They are better suited for drug sniffing-type jobs within policing and not to apprehend people,” Bennett said.

Lopez added: “There's nothing quite like a dog's nose in finding the missing person, or for sniffing out drugs.”

Lopez said the harm caused by police dogs trying to detain suspects “nearly always grossly outweighs any sort of threat to public safety” posed by those people.

“If I were in Louisville, I would absolutely be demanding that they dismantle the use of canines for apprehension,” Lopez said.

Calls for reform

Louisville Metro Council member Jecorey Arthur and Lyndon Pryor, interim president of the Louisville Urban League, told KyCIR they were concerned about but not surprised by issues raised in the Justice Department report, including the account of the Black teenager being attacked by a police canine while lying in the grass.

Arthur and Pryor both said the incident conjured up painful memories of police dogs attacking civil rights protesters in the 1960s.

“To think that we are still facing that type of vicious and heinous attacks by members of the police is truly, truly disturbing in so many different ways,” Pryor said.

“As bad and blistering as the report was, there wasn't a whole lot shared that I think the community was unaware of. The report exemplifies things that community members have, unfortunately, been complaining about for many, many years.”

“I don't think dogs are doing this by nature,” Arthur said. “That is really just a reflection of ‘learn and train behavior’ of the people that are asking them to do it.”

Arthur said whether actual lasting change results from the USDOJ report will depend in large part on whether the Louisville police department is the sole focus or whether other city agencies are involved as well.

“Disparities in the Black community compared to the rest of the community are because of the lack of social safety net, the lack of social services, the lack of economic justice,” Arthur said. “All of that is what we need to really be focused on, and not just pouring money into a failed project known as the Louisville Metro Police Department.”

Arthur also said that to the greatest extent possible, money for reforms needs to come from the police department’s budget, not from other agencies’ funding or from increased taxes.

Pryor said he hopes negotiations involving the city’s contract with the police union will lead to better police behavior and more accountability.

“We also believe that the public participation of impacted individuals has to be at the forefront of doing this,” Pryor said. “We cannot do this in the way that we've all always done and expect a different result.”

R.G. Dunlop is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms. Email R.G. at rdunlop@lpm.org.

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