HUNTSVILLE, Alabama—Officer Matthew Saltzman spotted the stolen Chevy SUV outside a Save-A-Lot three years ago. When he turned on his lights and sirens, the man in the white Chevy drove away.
Saltzman had been working with his police dog for about six months. Ronin, a Dutch Shepherd, was trained to sniff for drugs and to capture criminals by grabbing them with his teeth, court records show.
Police chased the SUV through the city until it came to a dead end and crashed in a backyard. The driver ran. Saltzman released Ronin, without a leash, body camera footage shows.
The dog lunged—and bit a nearby police officer, latching on to his bullet-proof vest. Saltzman struggled for almost a minute to get Ronin to let go. Meanwhile, the suspect got away.
It was Ronin’s first-ever bite. It would not be his last that day.
It's not unusual for police dogs to attack suspects, police officers, even innocent bystanders, in Alabama and across the country, according to an investigation by a team of news organizations. AL.com worked with The Marshall Project, the Invisible Institute in Chicago, and IndyStar in Indiana. We reviewed court cases and news stories, watched scores of videos of bites, observed police dog training, rode along with a K-9 unit and gathered public records in Alabama and nationwide.
Police often use dogs on people who are unarmed, or are suspected of non-violent crimes like car theft or drug possession, our reporting shows. Handlers often struggle to control the dogs, which do not always follow spoken commands. Their bites can result in severe injuries, even death.
What is unusual, for Alabama, is that the public can actually see bodycam footage of a dog attack, obtained in this case through a lawsuit. Police here almost never release video or detailed arrest reports or even press releases about K-9 bites. The state’s public records law does not require police to release records or videos related to active investigations, which can take years.
Some police dog bites have made news in Alabama. A Decatur police dog bit a sheriff’s deputy while chasing two teenagers. A Huntsville police dog bit a 17-year-old suspected of breaking into a school. A dog with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office bit a man suspected of stealing lawnmowers after he led police on a chase. Two years ago, there was a rare fatality: a Montgomery city police dog killed a handyman.
But most bites never become public.
Many police agencies in Alabama say dogs can be a valuable tool for catching fleeing felons and concealed criminals, and for intimidating violent suspects.
They are better than people at finding and chasing suspects, and can search where it is not safe to send officers, said Capt. George Beaudry of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.
“I’ll send four dogs into almost certain death before one of the officers,” he said.
A police dog named Missile saved officers’ lives last month when he found a man who ran from a traffic stop and fired shots at police, said John Shearon, the sheriff of Chilton County, south of Birmingham.
When police sent the dog to look for the man in the woods, he shot and injured the dog. Deputies then killed the man.
“But for the K-9 locating the suspect and drawing fire,” Shearon said at a press conference, “deputies would have very likely have walked into an ambush where the suspect was hiding behind a tree."
Two agencies, the state troopers and the sheriff’s office in Jefferson County, the most populous county in the state, said they don’t use dogs to bite suspects.
“They’re too much of a liability,” said Lt. Kerry Morgan of the sheriff’s office.
Dogs have played a role in racial conflict in the state, dating back centuries. Photographs of police in Birmingham using dogs against Black civil rights marchers shocked the nation in 1963.
"I can state emphatically that the way dogs have been used through slavery all the way through the present absolutely has a racialized component,” said Charlton W. Yingling, historian at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
Back in Huntsville, Ronin—now on a leash—and his handler were among a swarm of police continuing to hunt for the man who had been driving the SUV. They circled around small houses separated by chain-link fences. Another officer found the man hiding under a car.
When Saltzman sprinted over with Ronin, the dog bit Officer Weston Davis in the groin.
Again, the handler had a hard time getting Ronin to release, shouting in vain “Out! Out!”—the verbal command that was supposed to get the dog to let go. Davis eventually left the scene on a stretcher, heading to the hospital in an ambulance.
Ronin, however, was not done for the day.
There’s little oversight or regulation of police dogs in Alabama or across the United States, even though law enforcement agencies employ about 15,000 dogs nationwide for everything from finding lost children to sniffing out drugs, according to the U.S. Police Canine Association, a professional group.
Many are trained to bite people. A statistical analysis of several years of hospital admissions found that police dog bites send thousands of Americans to emergency rooms each year, causing more hospitalizations than any other police use of force.
There is no statewide record keeping or data collection on police dogs in Alabama. There also are no state standards for using or training a dog.
To try to get a handle on police dog bites in the state, we asked 11 police departments across Alabama for basic data on how many times their dogs bit someone.
Some did not respond to requests for public records about how many dogs they have and how often they bite people. There are no sanctions in Alabama for not complying with the state’s public records law.
After months of back and forth, we got data from just a handful of departments. Dogs in Mobile bit suspects in 32 of 63 apprehensions—more than half—in the past five years, according to city records. Per capita, that’s a high rate of bites, according to our data in big cities. White men were bitten most often, according to the department.
Police in Mobile say they are careful in their use of dogs, employing them mostly for detection work, sniffing for drugs, bombs or evidence. The department says it deploys dogs as a last resort and not to capture people suspected of minor crimes.
That’s because the injuries can be severe, said Sgt. Patrick McKean, who has worked with police dogs since 2003 and now leads the K-9 unit in Mobile.
“If you have a teenager bit over a minor misdemeanor and potentially left with a handicap for the rest of his life, that’s not worth it,” he said.
Huntsville says it has one of the nation’s oldest K-9 units, dating back to 1963. The police department there released some data, but it was incomplete (for example, it didn’t initially include the incident with Ronin).
The data also conflicted with its annual reports on the city website. They say that in 2016, the city’s police dogs caught 49 felony suspects; six of them were bitten, according to an annual report. The 2017 report doesn’t include similar data. In 2018, the dogs apprehended 53 people accused of felonies, including 15 who were bitten, according to another annual report. Neither of those reports includes stats on misdemeanor cases.
Huntsville police have “an excellent oversight process for all dog bite incidents involving the K-9 units, officers and dogs,” and investigate every bite, according to a statement from Eddie Blair, the assistant city attorney. “Our K-9 unit is frequently asked to assist other nearby jurisdictions, which could account for the number of interactions.”
The Birmingham Police Department did not release any data; neither did police in Montgomery or Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham.
Police in Madison, a suburb of Huntsville, said their dog bit just one person in the past few years. It happened to be captured on cellphone video.
They won’t release bodycam video or other records of their lethal encounter with a man they were questioning about taking photos at a gym on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019.
Officers found Dana Fletcher sitting in his van with his wife and child in the parking lot of a Planet Fitness. Cellphone video published by a local TV station shows police talking to Fletcher and telling him to get out of the van, as the dog pants and barks outside.
The authorities said that Fletcher reached toward a gun and repeatedly asked officers to shoot him. Eventually the dog bit him and tried to pull him out of the van. There was a struggle, and officers shouted that Fletcher had a gun. Then they shot him.
Fletcher’s family questions why a large police response, including a dog, was needed for a man suspected of taking pictures and asking questions at a gym. Every Sunday, the family protests across a highway from the gym, demanding release of bodycam footage.
“Dana would have been scared of the dog,” said Fletcher’s sister, Radiah. “How is it that within a few minutes of the police showing up, a man ends up on the ground with dog bites and shot to death?”
The Madison County prosecutor scoffed at community calls to see video of the Fletcher shooting, which he has called “entirely justified.”
“We’re not turning evidence over to the public,” District Attorney Rob Broussard told an angry crowd last year. “Even if the public has the information, what’s the public going to do?”
On his third try that day in Huntsville, Ronin did what he was trained to do. As his handler shouted “Get him!,” and pushed his head under the car, the dog bit down and grabbed the man by the arm. Ronin dragged the man out. The handler struggled to pull the dog off; it continued to bite for nearly half a minute after the man was handcuffed.
He turned out to be a 43-year-old Black man named George Matthews, who is a disabled veteran. He did not have a weapon. In an interview, he told AL.com he was hiding because he was frightened of the officers with guns, and of the dog, too.
Matthews was charged with felony theft of the SUV and a misdemeanor count of attempting to elude police. His court-appointed defense lawyer has requested a mental evaluation, but Matthews has missed court dates, records show, and the case has been repeatedly postponed.
The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office was the only agency that gave us all of the records we requested. They show that in the past five years, the sheriff’s police dogs have bitten 6 of the 37 suspects they were involved in catching. In addition, a dog bit a deputy while they were chasing a robbery suspect.
Among the suspects bitten, five were people involved in stolen car chases, while the sixth was a suspect in a burglary. All were male. All but one were Black. Half were juveniles.
Sgt. David Talley, a handler and the commander of the sheriff’s police dog unit, attributed the low number of bites to constant training and a narrow set of circumstances in which they use dogs to bite people: for handler protection, when someone is suspected of being involved in a felony or violent crime in progress, or when a suspect has a history of violence against officers.
The unit’s six deputies and their dogs attend 12-hour group training sessions every other week. On a recent Monday morning, they gathered for a training session at an abandoned school building.
The deputies worked one at time with four dogs, including one Belgian Malinois crossed with a German Shepherd they call a “Maliperd.” A deputy, a new man on the team, donned a padded suit and hid behind a tree. A handler released the large dog, which darted across a field, found the deputy and clamped down on the arm of the suit.
Cpl. Josh Henry said he has been bitten multiple times and undergone two shoulder surgeries after being knocked over by a dog during training. Yet, Henry said, it was a “no-brainer” that he would return as a handler despite those injuries.
“That question definitely came up,” he said. “But I love working with dogs.”
When people are bitten by police dogs, they sometimes try to sue—often unsuccessfully.
Hank Sherrod, a civil rights lawyer, represented Matthews, the man who hid under a car in Huntsville. Sherrod argued that the handler should have known that his dog wouldn’t let go of Matthews when commanded because that’s what happened when Ronin bit the two officers.
"If there is a problem with dogs biting officers,” Sherrod asked, “how much control do these folks really have over these dogs?"
But a federal judge ruled the handler, Saltzman, was entitled to qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that often shields police and other government employees from liability when they are on the job. Though Ronin kept biting Matthews after he was handcuffed, that did not rise to the level of excessive force, the judge found.
Saltzman did not respond to requests for comment.
A legal battle continues in the city of Montgomery, over the police dog bite that killed Joseph Lee Pettaway.
The bite happened early on July 8, 2018. Montgomery city police say they got a call about a person inside a small house on Cresta Circle.
The handler entered with the dog, Niko, on leash. The dog bit Joseph Pettaway in the thigh and tore his femoral artery. Pettaway, 51, bled to death.
Police in an affidavit say they believed Pettaway was a burglary suspect and a “serious and imminent danger.” But family members say Pettaway had been helping fix up the small home and would sometimes sleep there.
His family is suing. They say the police never explained how or why Pettaway died. "They didn’t even apologize yet," said Walter Pettaway, his brother. "They could have come to the house and said something.”
It took two years for civil rights lawyers to see bodycam video of the lethal dog bite—and it’s still not public. The city last month argued that releasing the video could cause “civil unrest.”
While the video hasn’t been made public, the lawyers for the family recently saw it and submitted a timeline to the court saying the bite lasts two minutes and that the handler, Officer Nicholas Barber, struggled to remove the dog. The timeline argues that officers left Pettaway to bleed untreated for several more minutes.
About five minutes after the bite ends, according to that timeline, another officer outside asks Barber, “Did ya' get a bite?" Barber says, "Sure did, heh, heh (chuckling)." The officer asks: “Are you serious?” Barber replies. "Fuck yeah."
Soon after they drag Pettaway out to the sidewalk and wait another 6 minutes for paramedics. Pettaway died at the hospital.
The city attorney’s office, which is representing Barber, said he would have no comment.
In pushing to make public the bodycam footage of the fatal bite, Pettaway’s attorneys argued the video “is damning, but that is all the more reason why it should not be confidential.”
Officer Saltzman whooped and praised Ronin as a “Good boy!” after the dog pulled Matthews out from under the car. The handler then apologized to the injured officer: “Man, I am so sorry, dude.”
His body camera was still filming when he called his supervisor to tell him about Ronin’s three bites. Like many K-9 officers, he described his dog’s actions as his own.
“That was a good one,” Saltzman told his sergeant. But, he added, “I’m gonna go ahead and give you a heads up that I bit two officers, also.”
Correction: A photo caption in an earlier version of this story incorrectly said Joseph Pettaway died at a home where he was bitten by a police dog. He died at a hospital.
Additional reporting by John Hammontree with Reckon and Damini Sharma of The Marshall Project.
Photos by Ashley Remkus and Joe Songer. Video editing by Jovelle Tamayo.
Design and development by Elan Kiderman, Katie Park and Gabe Isman.