The tiny pink house was pretty much empty. And run-down and dark, since the electricity had been shut off. Nevertheless, someone was trying to burglarize it, a caller told 911 well after midnight on a Sunday in Montgomery, Alabama.
The police called in a K-9 handler and his dog, Niko, to search 3809 Cresta Circle. The dog lunged, found a man and bit down, according to court records. It took almost two minutes for the handler to pull the dog off. And before long, their suspect, a 51-year-old Black man, bled to death. The dog had torn an artery in his groin.
The man was Joseph Lee Pettaway, and his family says he was no burglar. He got in trouble for bad checks and served time years ago, but was now taking care of his 87-year-old mother, Lizzie Mae, and helping to repair the pink house in her neighborhood, they said; he had a key and permission to sleep there.
The family is suing the city, seeking damages and information about what happened. “I never thought a dog would end up killing anybody, especially a trained dog,” said Walter Pettaway, Joe’s brother. The family also wants public release of the police bodycam video from July 8, 2018, that is described in court documents.
The city is fighting to keep the video from going public, arguing in court that it would cause “annoyance, embarrassment” for officers who were acting in good faith and could end up “facilitating civil unrest.” Officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Police dog bites are rarely fatal. But in other ways, the case of Joseph Pettaway is not unusual. These dogs, whose jaws and teeth are strong enough to punch through sheet metal, often produce severe injuries. Police employ them not only in emergencies, but also for low-level, non-violent incidents. The dogs bite thousands of Americans each year, including innocent bystanders, police officers, even their own handlers. And there is little oversight, nationally or in the states, of how police departments use them.
These are some of the findings of an investigation by The Marshall Project, with AL.com, IndyStar and the Invisible Institute in Chicago. We obtained dog-bite data from police departments around the country, including the agencies in the 20 largest U.S. cities. Our reporters also examined more than 140 serious cases nationwide, and reviewed thousands of pages of documents, including excessive force lawsuits, department policies, arrest reports and medical studies. We looked at scores of videos of police dog bites. We spoke with victims and their lawyers, law enforcement officials, former and current trainers and other experts.
Here’s more of what we found:
Though our data shows dog bites in nearly every state, some cities use biting dogs far more often than others. Police in Chicago almost never deploy dogs for arrests and had only one incident from 2017 to 2019. Washington 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, while Phoenix had 169. The Sheriff’s Department in Jacksonville, Florida, had 160 bites in this period.
Police dog bites can be more like shark attacks than nips from a family pet, according to experts and medical researchers. A dog chewed on an Indiana man’s neck for 30 seconds, puncturing his trachea and slicing his carotid artery. A dog ripped off an Arizona man’s face. A police dog in California took off a man’s testicle. Dog bites cause more hospital visits than any other use of force by police, according to a 2008 academic analysis of 30 departments.
Many people bitten were unarmed, accused of non-violent crimes or weren't suspects at all. Court records show cases often start as minor incidents—a problem with a license plate, a claim of public urination, a man looking for a lost cat. Although some departments, like Seattle, Oakland, California, and St. Paul, Minnesota, now have strict criteria about when dogs can bite, many continue to give officers wide discretion.
Some dogs won’t stop biting and must be pulled off by a handler, worsening injuries. Although training experts said dogs should release a person after a verbal command, we found dozens of cases where handlers had to yank dogs off, hit them on the head, choke them or use shock collars.
Men are the most common targets of police dog bites—and studies suggest that in some places, victims have been disproportionately Black. Investigations into the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have both found that dogs bit non-White people almost exclusively. Police dog bites sent roughly 3,600 Americans to emergency rooms every year from 2005 to 2013, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine; almost all were male, and Black men were overrepresented.
For many bite victims, there’s little accountability or compensation. Federal civil rights laws don’t typically cover innocent bystanders. In many parts of the country, criminal suspects can’t bring federal claims if they plead guilty or are convicted of a crime related to the biting incident. And even when victims can bring cases, lawyers say they struggle because jurors tend to love police dogs—something they call the Lassie effect.
Police dogs have a highly charged history in the United States, especially in the South, where they were used against enslaved people and, in the 1960s, civil rights protesters.
How Dogs Were Used as Weapons in North America’s History
But police departments that use dogs said the K-9s are essential tools for finding fleeing suspects, and for searching dark, narrow spaces for hidden dangers. That makes them crucial for officer safety.
Not every suspect who runs or hides or is not complying with commands will try to injure an officer, said Deputy Chief Josh Barker of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. But, he said, "In a lot of the instances, we're using that K-9 as a tool because we simply don't know.”
When police use dogs properly, injuries should be minor and require little treatment, handlers, trainers and experts said. The dogs are trained to create puncture wounds, but little else. The wounds should not involve tearing flesh, and the bite shouldn’t last long—seconds, not minutes.
The dogs are “not taught to rip, they’re not taught to tear, they’re not taught to maim,” said Kenneth Licklider, who has been training and selling police dogs for decades. Licklider owns Vohne Liche Kennels in Indiana, which supplies dogs and trains their handlers.
And with training and supervision, the dogs bite only a fraction of the times they are used, officials said. That’s a hard statement to prove, because few departments keep standardized data. Many of those that responded to our requests for records did not provide information on deployments, and when they did it was incomplete and inconsistent.
As a spokesman for the Jacksonville sheriff noted, “With policies varying among agencies, the number of engagements cannot be accurately compared.”
But some attorneys said the law should treat police dogs as lethal weapons. “I'd put being attacked by a dog just below being shot,” said Hank Sherrod, who has represented dog bite victims in Alabama.
Law enforcement agencies employ about 15,000 dogs for everything from finding lost children to sniffing out drugs, according to the U.S. Police Canine Association, a professional group. But no countrywide database tracks police dogs, the number of bites or who is bitten. There are no national requirements for dog handlers.
Handling dogs is more art than science, some in the business say. “The handler’s personality will go right down that leash,” said Ernie Burwell, a former canine handler for the Los Angeles County Sheriff who now testifies as an expert witness in excessive force cases. “If the handler’s an idiot, the dog will be, too.”
The lack of regulation worries some experts.
“It’s just sort of the Wild West when it comes to these dogs,” said Christy Lopez, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center who previously focused on policing and civil rights at the U.S. Department of Justice. She recalled speaking to a young Black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, who’d been curled up in a closet when a police dog gnawed on his arm.
“In Ferguson, I realized this was not a thing that needed to be reformed,” Lopez said. “It was a thing that needed to end.”
The Police Executive Research Forum, a prominent law enforcement think tank, recently called for clearer national standards to ensure all agencies have protocols for canine use.
Police officers said they are already careful about using dogs.
“A dog bite, it’s a violent encounter,” said Patrick McKean, trainer for the Mobile Police Department in Alabama. “The dog’s hurting somebody. We’re not going to just do that just for any little reason.”
Trainers say bites are worse when people don’t follow orders—when they try to run or fight back. But many videos we reviewed show people screaming in terror or flailing around, even as the handler yells at them to stop.
“It’s really hard for someone not to move when they’re bitten, and the more they move, the more they’re bitten,” said Ann Schiavone, a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh who is an expert in animal law.
Take the case of Patrick Gibbons, a White 47-year-old who sells golf supplies. On May 5, 2019, he flagged down a golf-cart taxi in the Old Town district in Scottsdale, Arizona. After Gibbons demanded that the driver go faster and even tried to push the accelerator himself, the driver got out. Gibbons took off (at 15 mph) in the cart. The driver called 911, telling the dispatcher Gibbons was unarmed but drunk.
A swarm of patrol cars responded while Gibbons, wearing shorts and flip flops, laughed and gave police the finger. After they punctured the cart’s tires to stop it, Gibbons put his hands up. Then, an officer released the patrol dog, police video shows.
For almost two minutes, the dog chewed on Gibbons’ back and side. Police said Gibbons was “flinging the K-9 from side to side,” according to an internal affairs report, and they fired non-lethal weapons at him.
“I couldn’t move without feeling some sort of pain,” Gibbons said. “There’s still stiffness. Now I just tell people I was attacked by a shark.”
Gibbons received a $100,000 settlement from the city for his injuries, but said he’s dissatisfied that criminal and internal investigations cleared officers of any wrongdoing. Gibbons said he took a plea deal for driving while intoxicated and stealing the golf cart, spending 36 days in jail and five months on home arrest.
A Scottsdale police spokesman said officers received the call as a reported carjacking and believed they were responding to a violent felony. He said Gibbons also refused police demands to stop the golf cart. If officers realized the true situation, their response would have been “wholly and completely different,” said Sgt. Brian Reynolds.
“We’re not out just siccing dogs on people just because they’re drunk,” he said. “Absolutely not.”
Some of the most serious injuries happen when handlers struggle to make dogs let go.
In Sonoma County, California, sheriff’s deputies responded to a caller who claimed a man had a gun. They used a Taser on Jason Anglero-Wyrick, a 35-year-old Black man. After he was on the ground, video shows, they set a dog on him—and had a hard time getting it to stop attacking. Anglero-Wyrick ended up with a fist-sized hole in his calf, his lawyer said, and spent weeks in the hospital. He did not have a weapon.
Anglero-Wyrick’s family put a video of the incident on YouTube, his lawyer said, because they wanted the public to see what happened.
“If that video hadn’t been posted, nobody would know about Jason’s case,” said his lawyer, Izaak Schwaiger.
A Sonoma County sheriff’s spokeswoman said the case is still under internal investigation and referred a reporter to a video of the incident posted to the agency’s Facebook page.
Even when they have suffered terrible injuries, people bitten by police dogs can find it very hard to collect damages. Take Deborah Hooper, a White woman who used to work as an accountant. According to court records, on May 9, 2006, a security guard at a drugstore in the San Diego suburbs caught her stealing a nail file and a couple of lipsticks. A sheriff’s deputy issued her a citation for petty theft, then took her to the parking lot and searched her car.
The deputy said he found a drug scale and what looked like methamphetamine, and tried to arrest her. As they struggled, the deputy pushed a special button on his belt, releasing his German Shepherd, court records show. The dog latched onto Hooper’s head, ripping off large chunks of her scalp and biting down to her skull.
Fourteen years later, Hooper is still undergoing surgeries. Doctors grafted skin from her thigh onto her head. They filled water balloons and stuck them under her remaining scalp to stretch the skin. She said she became a hermit and has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
She is also still in court, reliving the incident over and over again. She had to battle to get the right to sue for excessive use of force in federal court because she had pleaded guilty to resisting arrest; an appeals court eventually ruled in her favor. Her second trip to federal court ended with a hung jury.
This spring, she was back in court again, in a third trial that also ended in a hung jury. “The dog was just ripping my head back and forth,” she told jurors in San Diego. “There was blood everywhere.”
The Sheriff’s Office and the deputy said she lunged for his gun, which she denied. At the most recent trial in March, Melissa Holmes, the lawyer who represents the agency, said the officer “did what he had to do to protect himself and to protect the public.”
A spokesman for San Diego County did not respond to a request for comment.
A fourth trial was scheduled for this month but has been postponed.
One hurdle for people seeking redress is qualified immunity, which in most cases shields government employees, including police, from liability when they are doing their jobs. In its last term, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up a legal challenge to the doctrine in a lawsuit over a police dog bite. A Tennessee man, Alexander Baxter, had sued alleging that local police used a dog after he had surrendered with his hands in the air.
Outside of the courtroom, some communities are pushing for change.
Elected officials in Spokane have proposed making it harder for the police to use dogs after bodycam footage from last year showed an officer shoving a dog through a truck window and watching it chew on a man inside as he screamed. Police leaders concluded the officer acted within department policy.
“It seemed like the officers essentially used the dog to punish him,” said Breean Beggs, a civil rights lawyer and president of the Spokane City Council. “If that's policy, then there is something wrong with the policy."
The department did not respond to requests for comment.
In Salt Lake City, officials suspended the canine unit after a video showed police releasing a dog on a Black man, even though he was on his knees, hands in the air. In a rare move, prosecutors filed criminal charges of second-degree aggravated assault against the dog handler.
On Sept. 25, the city said that a review found a “pattern of abuse of power” when police used dogs, and moved to examine earlier incidents.
The Salt Lake City Police Department said in a statement that it is taking the criminal charges and a report by the Civilian Review Board into account as it works on its internal investigation.
Change is also underway in Walnut Creek, California, after officers released a dog on a demonstrator at a recent Black Lives Matter protest.
When marchers snarled highway traffic, a SWAT team released canisters of tear gas. Joseph Malott, a Black architecture student who joined the June 1 protest in his hometown, said he picked up one canister and tossed it away—in the direction of the cops.
Then he was face-down on the pavement. A police dog’s teeth sliced through his T-shirt and sank into his back, tearing his flesh and poking holes through his skin. He felt chewing on his leg and hand.
“It felt like I was being eaten,” Malott said recently. “They literally had to pull the dog off me.”
Public outcry about police actions at the protest prompted city leaders to promise that law enforcement wouldn’t use dogs at future demonstrations.
Charges against Malott were dropped, and he no longer needs crutches or a cane. But he still has physical and mental scars, he said. “It’s stuff that will be with me for the rest of my life.”
Additional reporting by Michelle Pitcher, Damini Sharma, Andrew Calderon and Ashley Remkus.
Photos by Mykal McEldowney and Joe Songer. Photo and video editing by Celina Fang.
Design and development by Elan Kiderman, Katie Park and Gabe Isman.