Police dogs are often portrayed as harmless, loveable members of the local police. But many departments across the country use dogs as weapons, training the animals to bite thousands of people every year, causing serious and even fatal injuries.
A new investigation from The Marshall Project, AL.com, IndyStar and the Invisible Institute exposes the widespread use—and abuse—of dogs in police departments across the U.S.
Here are six takeaways from our findings, based on data from departments across the country, thousands of pages of documents, videos and scores of interviews with victims, police officers and experts. The main article based on the investigation contains more information. We will publish more reporting in the coming weeks.
People are bitten across the country, but some cities use biting dogs far more often than others. There’s no national database of police dog use and who is bitten. Our reporting found bites in nearly every state, though data from more than 50 police departments shows the numbers vary widely by city. Police in Chicago almost never deploy dogs for arrests and had only one incident from 2017 to 2019. Washington, D.C., had five. Seattle had 23. New York City, where policy limits their use mostly to felony cases, reported 25. By contrast, Indianapolis had more than 220 bites and Los Angeles reported more than 200 bites or dog-related injuries. The Sheriff’s Department in Jacksonville, Florida, had 160 in this period.
Bites can cause life-altering injuries, even death. Dogs used in arrests are bred and trained to have a bite strong enough to punch through sheet metal. Their bites can be more like shark attacks, according to experts and medical researchers. When they are used on people, they can leave harrowing scars, torn muscles and dangerous infections. A woman’s scalp was torn in California; a man’s vocal cords were damaged in Colorado; an Arizona man’s face was ripped off.
Occasionally, someone dies after an encounter with a police dog. Most recently, a 51-year-old handyman bled to death after being bitten by a police dog in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2018.
Many people bitten were not violent and were suspected of minor crimes—or no crime at all. While many police agencies say they use dogs only to capture people accused of violent crimes or when officers are in danger, our review of bites around the country found the dogs are frequently used in minor cases: traffic violations, shoplifting, mental health checks, trespassing and running from police.
Most bite victims are men, and studies suggest that in some places, they have been disproportionately Black. Investigations into the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have both found dogs bit non-White people almost exclusively.
A statistical study found that police dog bites sent roughly 3,600 people to emergency rooms each year from 2005 to 2013; almost all were male and Black men were overrepresented.
Police officers sometimes can’t control the dogs, worsening injuries. Even when dogs are trained to release their bites with a verbal command, they sometimes don’t let go. While training experts say bites should last seconds, we found numerous cases that lasted minutes as handlers struggled to pull off the dogs. Some experts said that makes injuries worse, tearing flesh as the dogs are pulled away.
There’s little accountability or compensation for many bite victims. Excessive force lawsuits over dog bites are difficult to win. Police officers are often shielded from liability, and federal civil rights laws don’t typically cover bystanders who are bitten by mistake. It can also be hard for someone who pleads guilty or gets convicted of resisting arrest, or a similar crime, to file a lawsuit. Even when victims can bring cases, lawyers say they struggle because jurors tend to love police dogs.
Read the main article. In addition, our reporters will continue publishing stories from this investigation in the coming weeks, including the story of a Washington, D.C., woman who went for a walk, then encountered a police dog; an examination of the police department with the worst dog-bite rate among the nation’s 20-largest city agencies; and an examination of police dog use in Alabama and the state’s most dangerous K-9 unit.
Correction: An earlier version said a Maryland woman was bit while on a walk. She lives in Washington, D.C.