Some people describe a police dog’s bite as a deep tear through their flesh. Others are haunted by the feeling of a Vise-Grip, the dog's jaws slowly but painfully tightening around their arms or legs until the muscles go numb.
These are not the nips or snaps of a pet dog in a backyard. A police dog, trained for weeks on how to bite harder and faster and with little reservation, can inflict debilitating injuries and lasting scars. The physical damage lingers as long as the memories of a dog’s snarling teeth, its guttural growls, its head ripping back and forth upon crashing into a fleeing target, all while a police officer stands nearby shouting commands and praise in German, Dutch or Czech.
Across the nation, police dogs bite thousands of people a year. And in no major city is someone more likely to be bitten than in Indianapolis.
The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, home to one of the largest K-9 units in the country, has the highest rate of dog bites among police departments in the largest 20 U.S. cities.
Some cities saw one police dog bite over the last three years. In Indianapolis, it was once every five days.
The first-of-its-kind national analysis included a review of police dog bites from 2017-19. That review found that IMPD dogs bit 243 people over those three years. That’s more bites than New York; Chicago; Philadelphia; San Antonio; Dallas; Austin; San Francisco; Fort Worth; Columbus; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.
Police K-9 Bites per 100,000 Residents
Among police departments in the 20 largest cities, some have much higher rates of police dog bites than others. Between 2017 and 2019, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police dogs had 243 bites, or about 28 bites per 100,000 residents. But city police in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco each recorded only one incident.
Source: Analysis of use of force data from police departments, population data from the Census Bureau.
Per-capita rates use the latest five-year census population estimates and are approximations. City police departments in Los Angeles, Houston and San Antonio may include serious non-bite injuries in their K-9 use of force records. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department data for bites in 2019 include numbers through January 23, 2020.
The investigation also revealed for the first time:
Nearly 60 percent of people who had been bitten in Indianapolis were suspected in only low-level and non-violent crimes or traffic infractions; bites that would appear to be out of policy in some other cities, such as Seattle and Washington, D.C.
At least 65 percent of those bitten were unarmed and did not act violently, facts that contradict IMPD’s stated reasons for using dogs so often.
More than half of the people who were bitten are Black, a disproportionately high number for a population that makes up just 28 percent of the city.
15 percent of people bitten were younger than 18. Three-fourths of the juveniles are Black.
Sometimes police dogs bite the wrong people entirely, such as police officers at a crime scene or innocent bystanders in a neighborhood.
Marshawn Wolley, a community leader who has worked alongside Indianapolis city and police leadership to reform IMPD’s policies, said he was shocked to learn about what’s happening with IMPD’s dogs.
"This is not meeting the standards of what we expect from a professional police department. They have missed the mark. Dramatically,” Wolley said. “There’s really no hiding from this. They set the standard for being the worst. This has to be addressed. This has to be addressed."
Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett declined an interview request. He answered questions by email.
"These numbers are clear evidence that we must continue to have a dialogue with our community around what they expect not just of the K-9 unit," Hogsett said via email, “but of their police department as a whole."
The high number of bites in Indianapolis is driven in part by the convergence of two factors: a comparably loose set of IMPD policies that enables K-9 officers to release their dogs on people suspected of committing low-level offenses and, critics say, an old-school policing culture that encourages officers to do just that.
When IndyStar presented its findings to IMPD Chief Randal Taylor this month, he said he was concerned about the numbers.
"You know, I would hope we wouldn't have to bite that often," Taylor said. "If there's changes we need to make, I'm always for that."
Then, in an email Oct. 7, Taylor announced his department had drafted a new policy that, he says, will eventually place restrictions on the use of police dogs. For example: Officers would no longer deploy dogs on suspects in misdemeanor cases unless they believed that person is armed, though dogs would still be justified in all felony cases.
The policy change, if enacted, would have stripped out as many as 23 bites in misdemeanor cases over the last three years—an amount larger than the total number of bites found in some major cities.
That said, it's just 10 percent of the bites in Indianapolis. Even if they were removed from IMPD's total, Indianapolis would still remain the major city where someone is most likely to be bitten by a police dog.
As part of the yearlong investigation, IndyStar conducted four interviews with members of IMPD. That included three since June with Deputy Chief Josh Barker, who oversees the K-9 unit.
During the interviews, Barker said his officers had met all legal standards and had adhered to IMPD’s existing policy. Moreover, he credited the K-9 unit for tracking down dangerous criminals, many of whom were armed.
The investigation reveals another side of the story. In truth, IMPD has been using police dogs most often on unarmed people or those whose suspected offenses were some of the most routine, non-violent crimes common to any major city: traffic infractions, misdemeanors and Level 6 felonies, which are the lowest-level.
One man shoplifted a battery pack and power tools from a Home Depot. Another man was passed out behind a public library branch and then ran when a police officer woke him up. Yet another man stole three bottles of alcohol from a department store. And then there was the man who swiped cash from a table at a local pancake restaurant—a $5 tip.
It is unclear if IMPD's new policy would have prevented any of those bites. In each example, the person ended up facing low-level felony charges—which would still appear to justify an officer's use of police dogs under the new policy.
"It's something, obviously, we have to look at," Taylor said earlier this month. "I think we're moving in the right direction."
Barker said he does not regularly compare his unit’s number of dog bites against peer cities and would not answer questions about such a comparison. IMPD also heavily redacted public records that describe the circumstances of each dog bite, potentially including the severity of any injury. Similarly, no one tracks the data nationally.
So IndyStar, along with The Marshall Project and the other news organizations, stepped in, sending records requests to police departments in the largest 20 U.S. cities while reviewing thousands of pages of law enforcement policies, police reports and court records. Journalists also reviewed several videos of police dog bites across the country, and spoke with victims and their lawyers, law enforcement officials, dog trainers and other experts.
The investigation comes at a time of unease between police officers and the community following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and three recent fatal police shootings in Indianapolis. Indianapolis city and police leadership have pledged several reforms designed to ease tension by reducing how often IMPD officers use force on residents.
It appears, however, that the volume of police dog bites has escaped notice until now. Black leaders said they were particularly troubled because a police dog’s history in American policing is rooted as far back as the 1700s, when dogs were used to hunt down enslaved people who had escaped, and also figured prominently in the 1960s, when police unleashed dogs on demonstrators during the civil rights movement.
"Dogs have been used as very inhumane weaponry against Black people in America," said Susan Hall Dotson, coordinator of African American history at the Indiana Historical Society. "And history continues to repeat itself."
A simple philosophy—one that guides IMPD’s decision to use force—helps explain why officers set their dogs on so many more people than other departments.
If someone flees from an officer in a car, Barker said IMPD considers that person to be dangerous. No matter if the first suspected crime was a misdemeanor. No matter the circumstance.
Barker defends the practice by citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2011. That decision found that anyone who flees from a police officer in a vehicle can be considered a “serious violent felon” under Indiana law.
"All of (the bites) started with felony activity,” Barker said, referring to incidents when someone fled in a vehicle.
Even if Indianapolis police officers decide to chase someone for a low-level crime, and even if those officers decide to rely on a police dog to help search for a suspect, some concerned citizens and civil rights attorneys are still left wondering: Why is IMPD commanding dogs to bite people who pose no threat to the officers or to the community?
Take the case of a man driving a moped on a residential Indianapolis street without a headlight in 2017. He led officers on a chase through stop signs at the speed of 30 mph before ditching his moped and running away. An IMPD dog bit into his hip.
Or consider the 47-year-old woman who fled from a traffic stop in 2019. She was intoxicated at the time, according to police and court records, and her passenger threw a bottle of vodka out of the window during the police chase, before she crashed. She would not (or could not) leave the car, so IMPD sent a dog into the car after her. It then sunk its teeth into her left arm.
Or even the 37-year-old man who stole a travel trailer from a north-side business late one night in February. When an officer tried to stop him, the man drove away and then started running. A police dog found him lying in Fall Creek. Its teeth bit into his right arm.
The list goes on. IndyStar found numerous other examples that include driving a car without a license, or not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign, or running a red light.
Each time, the person was never accused of carrying a weapon, acting violently or threatening anyone—something that is true for at least 65 percent of the bites between 2017-19.
But since they all fled from IMPD, officers pursued them with trained biting dogs in tow. Each pursuit ended with a police dog biting into their flesh.
And IMPD's new policy would still allow for K-9s to be used on each of them.
"If you're going to put a dog on somebody, it should be reserved for people who have committed or are committing serious crimes," said Rev. David W. Greene Sr., president of the Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis, "not because somebody rolled through a stop sign."
Greene went on: "They’re not hardened criminals."
While IMPD officials acknowledged the 243 bites, they stressed that police dogs are used in many other arrests that do not result in bites. According to IMPD, the department remains below a federal guideline that says no more than 20 percent of police dog apprehensions should include a bite. (Figures provided by IMPD show 14 percent resulted in a bite in 2019; 12 percent in 2018; 16 percent in 2017; and 13 percent in 2016.)
What that also suggests, however, is that IMPD dogs not only disproportionately bite more people, they also appear to be used by officers with greater frequency.
And that matters, experts say, because dogs don’t have to bite someone to do lasting damage. Simply being chased by a dog, or having one actively hunting you, can make someone feel terrorized.
That level of frequency also begs, some argue, for a greater level of accountability, but IMPD could not provide an exact number for total dog deployments and could not say how many times a dog failed to detect a suspect.
IMPD does not retain either figure, both of which would be essential information to assess the effectiveness of its police dog program.
It can be discomforting to see or hear about a police dog bite, IMPD leaders acknowledged. But, they insisted, bites would never happen if the suspects listened to officers’ commands to stop fleeing, quit hiding and show their hands.
Michael Sutherlin, a civil rights attorney who represented someone bitten by a police dog in Hamilton County in 2014, said he is concerned about the potential for excessive force.
"People aren't always rational when they're committing crimes, even when it's something small," Sutherlin said. "You just run. You don't want to be caught."
Police officers typically have a big problem, Sutherlin said, when someone does not respect their authority. He believes K-9s are not just a tool used to track someone down; he also believes they’re a form of street justice.
"What I find is that police officers let the dog chew on the person,” Sutherlin said, “to teach him a lesson for running."
Joining the IMPD’s K-9 unit is a matter of prestige. The 26 officers are considered some of the brightest. They also are expected to remain in peak physical shape.
IMPD places a similarly stringent set of conditions on the dogs, which are acquired for about $10,000 each. IMPD buys some dogs to sniff out drugs or find explosives, but the 23 German shepherds, Dutch shepherds and Belgian Malinois used as patrol dogs are given two specific jobs: Find whoever is running from police and then, if necessary, bite down until the arrest.
The patrol dogs, known commonly in the K-9 world as attack dogs or bite dogs, must be self-assured and obedient. Other characteristics are just as important to IMPD.
"We want the dog to first and foremost be able to hunt,” said IMPD Sgt. Craig Patton, a nationally recognized K-9 expert who designed IMPD’s training program.
Part of what fuels a trained police dog’s ability to hunt, Patton has said in court depositions, is that the dog can smell fear.
"If you’re running from the police, you are giving off what we call an enhanced odor or fear scent," Patton said in one deposition. "And the longer we let that person sit in there, the more they’re going to sweat, the more they’re going to worry."
And, Patton acknowledged in depositions, police dogs must possess the desire to chase and then bite; something he’s called the "prey drive."
Ken Licklider, an international police dog trainer based in Denver, Indiana, described prey drive this way: When you throw a tennis ball across the yard, something ignites inside the dog that likens the tennis ball to a rabbit or deer or other potential food running for its life. A dog, motivated by a desire to chase down food, instinctually sees a bouncing tennis ball as the prey darting across the lawn.
It’s up to trainers such as Licklider, who has been importing dogs from Europe and selling them to Indianapolis police for decades, to spend several weeks training police dogs on how to bite until an important lesson sinks in.
"Human is the prey running away from him," Licklider said. "The dog lost his desire to bite a man eons ago. He's been domesticized for too long. We have to wake up deep, natural things in them. But once you wake those up, and that dog knows he can take you on and beat you, he turns into a different animal."
While IMPD buys some of its dogs from Licklider’s Vohne Liche Kennels, those dogs are not trained by Licklider because the department—like some others—holds its own training program. IMPD’s program lasts 12 weeks as well as another 16 or more hours of training per month. IMPD would not let IndyStar witness any of this training. As such, it is unclear to what extent IMPD teaches its dogs to associate humans with prey in the manner Licklider described.
That said, one of IMPD’s K-9 officers, Molly Groce, appeared to suggest as much in an Instagram post to her tens of thousands of followers.
Someone asked Groce how she rewards her police dog for successfully finding someone who ran from her.
Groce responded: "The bite itself is the reward."
And then if the dog misses out on a bite, Groce will toss him a Kong toy to gnaw on.
In 243 cases in Indianapolis over the last three years, there was no need for a toy. It was a person being ripped into.
A review of police body camera footage and media reports from other states reveals just how devastating a police dog's bite can be.
In Wisconsin, a police dog latched onto a 70-year-old man's head for several seconds in August 2015. A booking photo later showed blood that had streamed from underneath a head bandage and down across his right cheek.
In Minnesota, in June 2017, a police dog ripped away at least a third of the scalp of a homeless man who was asleep under a tree.
And in Lafayette, in western Indiana, a police dog in May bit into a man's neck for 30 seconds, ripping into his trachea and cutting the man’s artery.
Police dog bites have even on rare occasion killed people, including in Alabama, where a man died of a ruptured artery in his thigh after a police dog bite in July 2018.
"The dog is going to do what the dog is going to do. It's the handler's responsibility to make sure everything is going according to plan," said Andrew Noel, an attorney who has represented multiple bite victims in Minnesota. "If you don't take the right time and steps, then something bad can happen in a matter of seconds."
Unlike many other times that police officers use force, such as when they rely on physical strikes or batons or even stun guns, the effects of a police dog bite do not always disappear.
It has been nearly 20 years since an Indianapolis police dog mauled 42-year-old Lawrence Burt, but he is still living with the effects of that attack on his right arm. Officers said he resisted arrest while they were attempting to serve warrants, according to a police report from the time.
When his three kids were younger, Burt struggled to carry them while they played. He had to give up lifting weights. And his job prospects have been limited over the years because he lost the ability to move heavy items.
The cosmetic effects of a bite stay with people such as Burt, too. Scars of two gashes, set apart the distance of a German shepherd’s two canine teeth, snake across Burt’s right bicep. He tried to cover up another scar beneath a tattoo elsewhere on his arm, but the damage is still visible.
"I understand officers, they don't have an easy job. You know, it's hard out here, but this is what you signed up for," Burt said. "We didn't sign up for this."
Over the years, Burt said he has swapped stories with other Indianapolis residents who were targeted by police dogs.
He can always pick them out by their mangled arms and legs.
To what extent such injuries are still occurring in Indianapolis is unclear. IndyStar requested that IMPD provide all records detailing what happened when their dogs bit someone. IMPD provided some records but redacted most details, including descriptions of the actual bites, citing the state’s public records law.
Some records, though, become public through litigation, such as when an IMPD K-9 in 2015 stopped chasing a suspect through the west side and instead attacked an Indianapolis woman who was seven months pregnant. She had to undergo multiple surgeries to treat the rips on her arm and thigh, and she went into labor early. Her hospital bills reached six figures.
Without similar records from the other incidents, IndyStar could not learn the extent of injuries to the hundreds of other people who have been bitten by police dogs in Indianapolis.
And unlike most other major police departments, where such incidents are routinely caught on video, IMPD does not have dash cameras on most patrol cars, and IMPD has for years decided against a body camera program.
IMPD finally decided to buy cameras a few months ago as part of a yearslong effort championed by the mayor and IMPD leadership, including Taylor, to implement reforms, such as requiring officers to de-escalate situations and use the least amount of force necessary to arrest a suspect.
In July, IMPD adopted a new use-of-force policy that provides some guidelines on when officers should use stun guns, chemical spray and other weapons considered to be less lethal.
But noticeably absent from those guidelines: police dogs. The policy does not provide guidance on when officers should send a dog to bite a suspect, or even if the use of a dog is ever preferable to other types of force.
Because the new use-of-force policy lacks clarity and directions, it has created confusion for some officers on when they should turn a dog loose on someone instead of, say, use chemical spray.
"I really don't know," Lt. Robert Stradling, who heads the K-9 unit, said in August. "I've got questions of my own."
Taylor suggested the confusion may stem from the range in severity of a police dog’s bite.
"Obviously a dog could do severe damage at some point," he said, "but a dog could also do a minimal amount of damage."
A study published by Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2008, for example, found that people are far more likely to be injured by a K-9 bite than by other types of force used by police officers.
IndyStar repeatedly asked Deputy Chief Barker to describe which type of force would be more preferable: a dog bite or any other type of non-lethal force. Barker would not provide a specific answer.
Instead, he cited legal precedents that enable officers to wield force on suspects without fear of breaking the law. Barker repeatedly quoted, for example, the landmark 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Graham vs. Connor, which established the term "objectively reasonable"—the idea that a police officer's use of force must be assessed based on what is known by the officer at the time.
To judge an officer’s actions after the fact—once it is discovered that a motorist did not have a gun, for example—would conflict with the law established by the highest court, Barker said.
But a chorus of people across Indianapolis—activists, business leaders, elected officials, even IMPD’s own police chief—have said to varying degrees that having a legal right to use force doesn’t necessarily make it morally right.
IMPD has the power to go beyond what’s legally justified and require a higher standard for officers to remain employed on the force. That idea is at the heart of the reforms championed by Hogsett and Taylor.
Put another way: Even if it’s legal to use a police dog on someone who broke a traffic law and fled from the cops, maybe the punishment just doesn’t fit the crime.
Barker, though, speaking on behalf of the IMPD command staff, does not concede that point.
Beyond citing the legal precedents that empower officers to deploy dogs frequently, Barker said his unit has remained in compliance with IMPD’s policy.
That doesn’t sit well with Jon Little, an attorney who has represented two innocent bystanders who were attacked by IMPD police dogs.
"When you deploy that kind of potentially lethal force, you better know what the hell you're doing. And they don’t," Little said. "They need to understand that some crimes don't require massive force, like a dog."
If Hogsett or the Indianapolis city council were inclined to further tighten the rules on how officers use police dogs, other cities provide a blueprint.
The New York Police Department restricts patrol K-9 deployments, for the most part, to felony cases. New York City may be nearly 10 times the population of Indianapolis, but its police dogs have bitten about one-tenth the number of people as IMPD.
Some cities go even further, such as Washington, D.C. and Seattle, who limit the use of police dogs to serious felonies and a handful of specific violent crimes.
If IMPD implemented similar rules to those two cities, nearly 60 percent of the police dog bites would appear to be out of policy.
About one month after IndyStar informed IMPD about the findings of this investigation, and specifically its volume of bites compared to other cities, IMPD leadership requested a second interview.
IMPD said it would soon train and equip its K-9 officers with other weapons, such as tear gas and bean bag shotguns, as well as require K-9 supervisors to respond to the scene of any call-out for a police dog. IMPD believes its bite numbers will decrease because dog handlers will soon have more options to subdue someone.
Perhaps the biggest update highlighted by IMPD leadership is a plan to, essentially, alter the criteria for deploying a dog. At the time, IMPD said it was still working out the details, but the idea is to create different sets of rules for three tiers of crimes and circumstances. The more severe crimes would lead to a larger K-9 response, Stradling said. And maybe police dogs would never be called for some offenses, such as property crimes.
Beyond placing further restrictions in misdemeanor cases, the proposed changes that IMPD announced Wednesday did not incorporate specific details about these deployment criteria.
Barker, the department’s deputy chief, who did not reference the proposals in the initial 90-minute interview with IndyStar, insisted the changes had been planned for two years.
Barker said IMPD's leadership had an "epiphany" to update how its K-9s are used. He said the new policy, once it is implemented, might one day even serve as a model to police departments across Indiana and the Midwest. The policy is now being reviewed by unnamed external experts, according to IMPD's announcement on Oct. 7.
It's not as if the changes announced last week, however, would have prevented most of IMPD's bites. People who unlawfully possess a syringe or steal power tools from a department store could still be wanted on felony charges. So, too, could anyone who flees in a vehicle, including a moped going 30 mph.
So while IMPD is in the process of providing an updated K-9 policy, it appears the department has not addressed what experts and activists believe are some of the most serious concerns.
One of those concerns, particularly for a city and police department committed to building a better relationship with Black residents, is how often officers send their dogs on Black people.
The news organizations' investigation found that 55 percent of those bitten are Black, which is disproportionately higher than the Black population in Indianapolis, which is just 28 percent.
The racial disparities are even starker when IMPD officers send dogs after children and teenagers. Three in four of those younger than 18 are Black.
K-9 Bites by Race
Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department's nearly all-White K-9 unit used dogs to bite Black residents at a disproportionately high rate. For every 100,000 Black residents, 56 were bitten between 2017 and 2019—almost three times the rate for their White peers.
Source: Review of IMPD use of force reports and data. Two people who identified as biracial were not included are not included.
The mayor called the disparity troubling and said it should be examined.
IMPD’s K-9 unit, meanwhile, has one Black officer. The other 25 are white.
"I don't believe those dogs are sent out to bite because of someone's skin color," said Taylor, the police chief, who is Black. "But I also understand that yes, there are some people who certainly can look at that and have those concerns."
Christy E. Lopez, a former U.S. Department of Justice official who led federal investigations into multiple police departments, said she believes most handlers try to be objective about how they use dogs.
Instead, the bite disparity is likely a result of a criminal justice system that disproportionately deals with Black and Hispanic people, Lopez said.
After years of investigating police departments, Lopez now questions the need for patrol dogs at all.
"I don’t think dogs that bite people need to be in policing," said Lopez, now a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. "If you look at the cost-benefit analysis of having K-9s that bite, I don’t think there’s any question that the cost so far exceeds the benefits that there's no reason to have them."
Some of the costs have been mounting for centuries, scholars say, dating back to when dogs were used to hunt enslaved people who had escaped all the way through the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when police attacked demonstrators with dogs.
"White people and Black people, generally speaking, tend to have different approaches to animals, particularly domestic dogs and K-9s, simply because dogs have been used as a tool of state violence against people because of their race," said Tyler D. Parry, an assistant professor of African American and African diaspora studies at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. "The utilization of a K-9 against a Black suspect hearkens back to an era where Black people were viewed as a lower order of human."
Some of that history has played out in Indianapolis.
The city founded its K-9 unit back in 1960 to prevent petty crimes such as purse snatchings and burglaries, according to IndyStar archives, as well as to break up "trouble-causing mobs."
Dotson, the historian in Indiana, said such language is likely coded to mean a group of Black people perceived by police to be up to no good.
In his research, Parry and his colleague have found that K-9 unit tactics similar to those seen in Indianapolis and other parts of the country around this time mimicked those used in apartheid South Africa and during the tracking of Australian Aboriginals, which speaks to the systemic use of police dogs as a form of white control over people of color.
"Dogs," Parry said, "are one of the primary fixtures from colonization all the way up to the present that have served as a symbol of terror for nonwhite people."
Of course, police dogs aren’t only used on Black people in Indianapolis. Throughout the decades, IndyStar has reported on Indianapolis police dogs deployed against rowdy drag race attendees, factory strikers and people actively committing crimes.
It speaks to the depth of IMPD’s view that police dog bites are an acceptable way to stop anyone who runs or resists arrest.
It’s a culture that traces back to a decision made nearly 40 years ago to address a time of racial unrest in Indianapolis.
In 1981, as Indianapolis grappled with the fallout of officers who shot at fleeing Black residents, then-mayor William Hudnut helped choose a new police chief to oversee changes in the department.
Among them, according to IndyStar’s reporting at the time, was an expansion in the number of police dogs.
"People resent the dogs, I know," Chief Joseph G. McAtee was quoted as saying by IndyStar in 1981. "But if they go out on a burglary run and bite someone, that person is going to be alive. That’s better than if a policeman sees a suspect and shoots and kills him. At the least, with the dog, we have prevented a shooting."
That idea—that dogs are a good alternative to deadlier uses of force—is still present among IMPD leadership. It also helps explain why police dogs are used so frequently here.
Some circumstances are more obvious than others.
Stradling described a specific situation where two armed people shot at a police officer’s car before running and hiding in a neighborhood.
With dogs able to pinpoint where a suspect is, Stradling said, officers are less likely to be surprised and therefore respond by drawing their weapons.
"If we take the dogs out of the equation, and we have to go find this person, we're going to miss them," Stradling said, "or they're going to end up behind us, or we're going to step on top of them before we even know that they're there."
But when IMPD officers were questioned by IndyStar about how common that situation is, and whether IMPD conducts any routine reviews to ensure the police dogs are only biting dangerous people, the unit’s head dog trainer rejected the idea that dogs might be overused.
"I don't know that anybody's ever suggested that us using a less lethal tool would be too much in any circumstances," Patton said. "The good thing about using police dogs is they are the only tool used in law enforcement that can be recalled once it's deployed. Can't bring a bullet back."
But that raises a question that neither IMPD’s command staff nor its policy answers. There are any number of instances when police are justified to use lethal force, such as when someone is armed and threatening to harm a police officer or others.
So if an officer prefers a firearm in such situations, just how often is it a better option to use a dog? When someone is unarmed? Not suspected of violence? Not threatening an officer or anyone else?
In those cases—which account for the majority of bites in Indianapolis—the choice might seem to be more between a dog and some other less lethal alternative.
Or, some say, maybe not using force at all.
Rev. Greene, of the Concerned Clergy, said he is skeptical of IMPD’s justification that police dogs are preventing more police shootings in Indianapolis.
"If that was the case, why doesn't every police department across the country have the same practice? Why aren't we seeing the same numbers across the country?" Greene said. "We want a police department, a quality police department. But we don't want to see one that takes shortcuts or exploits people."
Something else happens when police officers deploy dogs as frequently as IMPD does.
Sometimes the dog bites the wrong person.
Gordon Mitchum Sr., 78, retired from his job as a mail handler after working for the U.S. Postal Service for 43 years. Now he spends most days in the yard outside the east-side home he’s owned for nearly 50 years.
He’s often tending to the pink gladioluses, red petunias and purple clematis in the front. Other times he and his wife Della, the woman who became his high school sweetheart back in Tennessee years ago, rest under the shade on their back porch.
It was there in late May 2018, sitting on cushioned chairs next to a small sign that reads "To cultivate a garden is to walk with God," when an IMPD dog appeared unexpectedly and shattered the serenity of the Mitchums’ home.
IMPD Officer Molly Groce—the same handler who told her Instagram followers about how her police dog finds it rewarding to bite people—and her dog were in the area looking for a potential carjacking suspect.
The two entered the Mitchums’ yard through a little-used side gate, rather than through the main driveway. Then they walked along the back of the home until they reached a corner. Mitchum, sitting around the bend on his porch, was suddenly confronted with a large Dutch shepherd.
First the dog latched onto Mitchum’s left leg. Then the dog dragged Mitchum from his seat on the porch onto the pavement, leaving the elderly man laying flat on his back. Then the dog decided to bite Mitchum’s right foot, latching onto that, too.
"It seemed like this dog did whatever he wanted to do," Mitchum said.
The dog finally stopped biting after a few seconds. Four or five other officers were nearby and did not help pull the dog away, Mitchum said. A sergeant later told him that the officers were not trained to handle a K-9, Mitchum said.
Mitchum, meanwhile, could not stand. He laid on the pavement until medics arrived. They cut open his pants and removed his shoes to treat the wounds. They placed him in an ambulance and drove him to the hospital.
He was given a walking stick at the hospital. He could walk, but it was painful.
His foot wrapped in a soft cast for two months, Mitchum could not put on his shoes. The pain in his foot prevented him from driving anywhere for about a month. He relied on his children for rides to the doctor’s office on Tuesdays and Thursdays for two months for follow-up visits, including several cleanings.
All these months later, Mitchum said his leg is still tender. Sometimes the pain throbs at night, when it seems as if that leg is heavier than the other.
He filed a lawsuit against IMPD in federal court in June 2019. The city’s attorneys declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
Mitchum, like the hundreds of other people who have been attacked by an IMPD dog, was not the only person forced to grapple with the effects of a police dog bite that day. As he waited in the hospital, his daughter, now 50, returned to the chair on the porch.
Her father’s blood had pooled on the nearby pavement. His Sketcher shoe, too, had collected a lot of blood.
She wrapped the shoe in a plastic bag and threw it away.
Then, using a mixture of bleach and water, she hosed her father’s blood away from the patio, away from the potted flowers and clinging wind chimes.
Additional reporting by Abbie VanSickle, Challen Stephens, Michelle Pitcher, Damini Sharma, Andrew Calderon and David Eads.
Photos and videos by Mykal McEldowney. Graphics by Weihua Li.
Design and development by Elan Kiderman, Katie Park and Gabe Isman.How we investigated this story
At 243 bites over the last three years, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department leads the largest American cities in the rate of dog bites per resident.
To compare IMPD to its peers, reporters filed public records requests with police departments serving the 20 largest cities in the country, compiling information about dog bites between 2017 and 2019. Journalists also compared the number of bites against a jurisdictions' population, using the latest five-year census estimates.
Indianapolis was not the only city to record more than 200 bites; Los Angeles surpassed that number, too.
Some cities record police dog bites slightly differently than IMPD. Whereas IMPD documents every time a police dog intentionally bites a civilian, the police departments in some cities such as Los Angeles and Phoenix track bites alongside other injuries caused by the dogs, though bites are the primary causes of injuries.
But Los Angeles is several times larger than Indianapolis. When comparing the number of bites per resident, IMPD dogs bit people at five times the rate of Los Angeles.
Even accounting for small differences in record-keeping, IMPD’s dogs still bit people at an extraordinary rate compared to the other largest police departments. IMPD’s rate of bites is more than double the rate of all but one major city, Jacksonville.
You could combine the number of bites from 11 other departments and still fall short of the bite total in Indianapolis.Finding cases not involving weapons or violence
To find out the number of people who were bitten despite not having a weapon and not acting violently, reporters read through numerous reports detailing the circumstances of each of the 243 police dog bites in Indianapolis. Journalists reviewed use-of-force reports, which were prepared by the K-9 officers; police incident records, which typically say whether or not a handgun or other weapon was confiscated from the scene; and court documents, including probable cause affidavits that typically contain extensive descriptions from police officers, including the reason prosecutors are pursuing any charges against the person who was bitten.
If any of those documents included a hint of a weapon or danger—if an officer spotted a holster on someone, for example, or if a dispatcher noted that someone may be armed—the incident remained off the list.
But 65 percent of the cases did not include any weapons or threats; just unarmed people who were bitten by police dogs.Finding cases involving petty crimes or traffic infractions
The investigation found that nearly 60 percent of IMPD’s bites occurred during arrests for low-level, non-violent crimes or traffic infractions.
To identify this number, journalists matched IMPD bite cases to court records, cataloging any charges resulting from each case. Reporters also noted any warrants that police referenced as a reason for pursuing a person or using a K-9. Warrants that police did not appear to know about until after the arrest were not included.
In about one out of every six cases reporters could not locate matching court records, typically because the police dogs had bitten a minor. If minors were charged as adults—as was the case for a handful of people who were bitten—then their court records were open to the public. The rest of the cases involving minors did not result in adult charges, however. For those incidents, reporters examined IMPD’s use-of-force reports and data to determine the expected charges.
Journalists then counted the number of cases where the bite victim faced only low-level charges: traffic infractions, misdemeanors or Level 6 felonies, the lowest-level felony charge in Indiana.
The total did not include more serious felonies, even though this included some drug possession charges where the person did not appear to be a threat to others. Reporters also excluded low-level charges that could have been violent; domestic violence, for example, can sometimes be filed as a misdemeanor in Indiana.
Altogether, close to 60 percent of IMPD’s police dog bites between 2017 and 2019 resulted in low-level, non-violent charges, despite the department arguing that police dogs are used primarily to apprehend dangerous suspects.
Reporters also compared the records against other departments’ policies. In Seattle, department policy limits K-9 use to a specific list of serious felonies and violent misdemeanors, while Washington, D.C. limits dog bites to serious felonies or for pursuing armed suspects.Examining racial data
Reporters used a list of the 243 canine bites between 2017 and 2019 and Indianapolis police’s use-of-force reports to determine the race, sex and age of each person. In one case where the full report was not available, reporters used IMPD’s public use-of-force data to fill in the gaps.
The data showed that when IMPD officers deployed dogs to bite someone, that person was more often than not Black.
The racial disparity among young people was even sharper. Reporters looked at the cases where IMPD canines bit a juvenile–about 15 percent of all incidents. In these cases, 75 percent of those bitten were Black, including teenagers as young as 14.
IMPD sent police dogs to bite 11 people under the age of 16. All but two were Black.