Late one night in December 2018, Ayanna Brooks and her Siberian husky, Neptune, took a stroll with her boyfriend after his bartending shift. On a patch of grass near a CVS, they let Neptune roam off-leash. Then the sound of sirens filled the air. Police were chasing several men who had bolted from a stolen car.
It was a rare enough sight in their gentrifying Washington, D.C., neighborhood that Brooks, who was 27 and worked in real estate, recorded video for an Instagram story. “Yo, this is so unexpected!” she said. Wanting to avoid any police drama, she and her boyfriend, Joseph Burroughs, who are both Black, put Neptune back on his leash and turned to head home.
But before they could get too far, a police car from nearby Takoma Park, Maryland, pulled up. Out hopped a police dog, which Brooks immediately noticed was “butt naked”—no leash, no harness. She heard the handler shout, “Drogo, get down!” Then she saw the dog disobey the order and trot around the car. She knew from training Neptune that this was a bad sign, and assumed this was the kind of dog capable of serious harm.
She felt Neptune tug her as an officer pushed her out of the way. She lost her footing and fell against a hedge. As she slid to the ground, she saw the K-9 bolt in a wide arc—he was coming for her.
Brooks tried to stay still, thinking that any sudden movement might make Drogo more aggressive. Even if she got up, she’d never outrun him. Her sense of time slowed as she closed her eyes and listened to the officers’ shouts, steeling herself for whatever was coming.
But nothing could prepare her for this pain. Brooks felt the dog’s teeth rip her pants and tear into her muscle. She let out a piercing scream. “It was like being stabbed multiple times simultaneously, four little knives in my leg,” she said. “I could see his teeth in my leg.” She heard an officer shout Drogo's name, but he just re-adjusted his grip—four more little knives.
She wondered, “Am I about to die?”
Across the U.S., as many as 15,000 dogs are employed by police departments, and although many sniff for drugs, bombs and bodies, a significant portion are trained to bite. Every year, police dogs latch onto thousands of Americans—some of them accused of violent crimes, but others wanted in low-level, non-violent cases.
And still others, like Ayanna Brooks, are innocent bystanders.
Since 2011, K-9s have bitten at least 40 people the police were not pursuing, according to an analysis of data and thousands of pages of police records, court files, medical studies and other documents, carried out over the last year by reporters from The Marshall Project, AL.com, IndyStar and the Invisible Institute.
Many law enforcement experts say dogs can be crucial tools for officer safety, helping them find and hold dangerous suspects, and resolve situations that might otherwise turn deadly. “It is much safer to have that dog engage that suspect, at a distance, without the officer being right there,” said Pat McKean, a handler and trainer with the Mobile Police Department in Alabama. “It helps officers go home at night.”
Trainers said that although bites can be difficult to watch, if a dog is properly trained, any injuries should be minimal.
But with little state or national oversight, K-9 units have received scarcely any scrutiny, even as troubling cases have piled up. Since 2016, at least two people have died after they were attacked by police dogs. Many survivors have faced reconstructive surgeries, disfiguring scars, infections requiring hospitalization and years of therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Among modern policing tools, dogs have an especially dark history. They attacked Black civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s, and a century earlier dogs were used to hunt and terrorize enslaved people. A few recent studies have found that some police departments used K-9s disproportionately against people of color.
“It’s as if you were issuing officers guns that you knew, every once in a while, would just randomly fire," said Georgetown law professor Christy Lopez, who examined police dog use against Black residents of Ferguson, Missouri, while at the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014. “I do not think we would do this if we thought of policing as something that impacted primarily White communities.”
For victims of police dogs, the bite is often just the beginning of the story. Many seek redress in court and run up against numerous hurdles. Ayanna Brooks’s legal options were worse, ironically, because she was not the person the cops were chasing.
With Drogo’s jaws still clamped on her shin, and officers struggling to pull the dog off her, Brooks’s instincts kicked in: She wedged her thumbnail, sharpened to a point, past Drogo’s teeth and into his mouth.
The dog let go of her leg, only to sink his teeth into her thumb. Brooks yanked her hand back, giving an officer a split second to drag the dog away. She stood up and tried to walk, but quickly fell to the ground sobbing.
“I can’t apologize enough to you,” said Drogo’s handler, Jessica Garrison, according to body camera footage.
“Her dog just freaking took off,” another officer told a colleague. “Bit the shit out of a citizen.”
Brooks’s boyfriend rushed Neptune home. Then an officer took the couple to a hospital, where doctors found four bite marks on Brooks’s shin, along with a puncture wound in her thumb. She says she moaned and whimpered as a doctor picked off bits of flesh. Doctors often avoid sewing up such bites, given the risks of infection, but her wounds were severe enough to require 21 stitches.
As Brooks lay in the emergency room, her mother, Koko Austin, burst in. Knowing her daughter's fear of needles, Austin held her hands while doctors sutured her wounds.
Many victims of police violence have no idea how to investigate what happened to them. But Austin worked for a federal agency and knew that such an incident would produce a paper trail. She grilled the sergeant on duty and secretly recorded parts of their conversation. He told her Drogo had been in service for a year with no known problems. “There’s a first time for everything,” he said in the recording. Around 4 a.m., right after Brooks was discharged, her mother drafted a request for public information from the department.
Brooks needed two weeks off work to recover—the first week she couldn’t walk, and she needed a cane for nearly two months. During that time, the police reports and body camera footage arrived, and mother and daughter pored over the material.
In one memo they obtained, Garrison, the dog handler, admitted that she had been distracted by a fellow officer’s orders, which allowed Drogo to escape her car without a leash. Drogo initially obeyed her, she later explained in a court affidavit, but was excited by the lights and sirens and probably stopped being able to hear her.
But in Garrison’s account, and those of other officers, it was clear the police remembered the incident differently than Brooks and her boyfriend did. Garrison wrote that the couple stepped in Drogo’s way, placing themselves between him and their own dog, and both kicked in Drogo’s direction. She wrote that even after Drogo bit Brooks, her boyfriend kept kicking at his face, making it harder for Garrison to pull the dog off.
Brooks and Burroughs deny this account. Garrison is no longer with the department and declined to comment for this story, but in a court affidavit she did agree that Brooks tripped.
Reading the officers’ accounts, what offended Brooks the most was the depiction of her own dog. The officers wrote that Neptune barked and snapped in Drogo’s direction, which “enticed” him. There was no evidence of this in the bodycam footage. “My dog has never done that,” Brooks said. “I take great pride in him being well trained, because I know how it is as a Black dog owner.”
Race had long shaped her experiences as a dog lover. She’d been the only Black child she knew growing up who had one as a pet, and after college, as her neighborhood gentrified, she was often the only Black woman at the new dog parks.
After receiving Neptune as a birthday gift from Burroughs, in 2017, she decided to train him herself, and she realized her dog had to be, in his own way, twice as good. He once caught a stranger’s Frisbee and the man kicked him, claiming he was being aggressive. “White people tend to think that Black people’s dogs are violent,” Brooks said. “I can’t afford to have my dog out here acting the fool.”
While recovering at home, she found Drogo’s Instagram page. In some of the posts, she said, it looked like he received laughs and encouragement when he didn’t obey his handler.
“How is it that my dog, with home training, is more obedient than this dog that they pay thousands to train?” she said. “I’ll train the dog!”
Named for the fearsome Dothraki warrior in Game of Thrones, Drogo had become a star of the Takoma Park Police Department's Twitter account, hanging out with Girl Scouts and posing with a figurine of the Marvel character Groot.
The 2-year-old Belgian Malinois-German Shepherd mix was born in the late spring of 2016, and city records, obtained by Brooks’s mother and a local official, show he spent the last four months of 2017 with dogs from several departments, in a training run by the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland.
Police dogs are usually imported from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic through American middlemen and cost departments tens of thousands of dollars to buy and train. In a December 2017 email to her colleagues, Garrison, herself new to K-9 work, wrote: “Most of the dogs were green (that means they know very little), and fresh from Europe.”
Drogo, whose two breeds are favored by police for their strength and desire to hunt, was “cross-trained” in detection, and received a “Top Dog” award for his skills in “tracking, obedience and apprehension.” In March 2018, a suspect threw a gun into some bushes and Drogo helped find it. In November, he found a robbery suspect hiding under a bridge.
Since there are no national standards for training or utilizing police dogs, and no national tracking of their use, it is difficult to compare departments. Law enforcement experts said each case must be examined in context. But that year, Drogo and other dogs were involved in 49 deployments, according to a city report. Given that Takoma Park has fewer than 18,000 residents, this appears to be a higher rate of police dog use for that year than other agencies that provided data to The Marshall Project and partnering newsrooms.
City officials say Takoma Park formed its own K-9 unit in 1991 to better control how such dogs were used within its borders. The canine unit in Prince George’s County, which at the time included part of Takoma Park, faced an FBI investigation and more than a dozen lawsuits, including one from a woman who was mauled in her bed and needed four surgeries on her scalp and tear ducts.
Takoma Park’s own department instituted detailed procedures for using K-9s. In an emailed statement, City Manager Suzanne Ludlow called Brooks’s encounter an accident and said it was the first such incident in the K-9 unit’s nearly three decades in operation. Afterwards, the department reviewed its policies and procedures and found no problems, Ludlow continued, but still re-trained all K-9 staff and “added a layer of supervision to ensure best practices continue to be followed.”
Kyle Heyen, who has trained police dogs around the country and served as an expert witness in court, said a K-9 can be well-trained initially, but lapse if the training isn’t maintained, especially through exposure to chaotic situations. Many handlers transport their dogs with leashes already on, he explained, so they can’t jump out of the car as Drogo did: “That’s the snowball falling to the ground and starting to roll.”
Heyen said with proper continued training a dog can be “the most economical, resourceful piece of equipment law enforcement has.”
Some critics see the risks as simply too high, arguing that even in the best of circumstances, there is no way for a dog to distinguish on its own between a suspect and a bystander. (Even the Takoma Park officers briefly wondered whether Brooks or her boyfriend were suspects in the car theft.) “You’re letting an animal decide how to use force,” said Don Cook, a California lawyer who has spent decades suing law enforcement agencies over dog bites. “It can’t make that decision, and you’re going to have consequences.”
In the weeks after the attack, Brooks had nightmares and spells of throbbing pain, she said. Then came the insecurity about the unsightly scar on her leg, especially as the weather warmed and others wore shorter dresses and swimsuits. Brooks, along with her boyfriend and mother, all recall at least one officer saying the department would pay her medical bills, but never did. Ludlow, the city manager, wrote that incidents leading to potential legal claims against the city are referred to the city’s insurer, and “city staff are aware of this process.” Brooks said her own insurance didn’t cover her costs.
A local official in Washington, D.C., who saw the incident on the news, asked the city’s police department to investigate, since it took place in their jurisdiction. The department sent its reports to a federal prosecutor, who determined there was not evidence to charge any of the officers with a crime.
Throughout 2019, the family worked with a lawyer, Eric Rosenberg, who argued in a state lawsuit that Garrison should have warned the couple that Drogo was leaving the car, something she had done on other occasions, according to police records.
But he told the family it would be difficult to win: A Maryland jury would need to find Garrison’s failures were grossly negligent or even intentional. Garrison’s lawyer argued that she wasn’t liable for an accident stemming from a mistake.
Brooks would have also faced an uphill battle in federal court, where the doctrine of “qualified immunity” often provides cover to police officers. In addition, jurors tend to be sympathetic towards dogs—experts call it the “Lassie effect”—and some judges have ruled that accidental victims like Brooks have fewer rights than suspects when it comes to excessive force.
In 2015, Mara Mancini was standing on her porch in Indianapolis when a police dog, looking for someone else, dragged her to the ground, biting her arm and leg. She was pregnant, and her son was born dependent on the narcotics she was prescribed after the attack. A judge dismissed her lawsuit, even while admitting the officers involved showed a “grievous lack of discretion.”
Given the difficulties of winning in court, many victims of police dog bites agree to settlements.
In 2017, Pittsburgh police responded to a mistaken report of burglary, and a dog bit the renter, Robert Aldred, who had been asleep in his bed. His puncture wound became infected, requiring several hospital trips. “I had no witnesses,” he said, “so it was me against them.” Afraid of losing a trial, he took a settlement for $16,000. He said roughly half went to his lawyer and the rest was a “drop in the bucket” of his medical bills.
Earlier this year, Brooks lost her real estate job due to the pandemic, and there was no telling when a court could hold a trial. Takoma Park offered to settle and she agreed. She declined to give the exact amount and said it was in the high five figures, enough to cover her legal and medical bills, with a little left over, but “nothing to change my life.”
The settlement made the local news just as protesters were taking to the streets nationwide, following the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. A former member of the Takoma Park City Council, Seth Grimes, argued that disbanding the K-9 unit would be an easy show of faith by city officials ahead of deeper discussions about policing. A group of advocates collected more than 200 letters. Other cities are seeing similar efforts; officials in Salt Lake City recently suspended the use of dogs during arrests after a Black man was attacked while on his knees.
This month in Takoma Park, a city council-organized task force on “reimagining public safety” will begin meeting, and the K-9 program is on the discussion list.
As her wounds turned to scars, Brooks found she wasn’t afraid of dogs so much as of sudden dangers like getting hit by a car or a bullet. One day, a man, perhaps with mental illness, was yelling in a park and she found herself crying. “I try to encourage her any way I can,” said Burroughs, her boyfriend. “I usually don’t feel it, but then when I talk about it I realize I have trauma from that night, for what happened to her.”
Brooks planned to be a member of her mother’s wedding party in September 2019, and they negotiated about the length of her bridesmaid dress, making sure it would cover her scar, which still made her self-conscious.
But as the day approached, Brooks says she was overcome with dread, afraid of being bombarded by people she didn’t know well, of being expected to be open and warm and face questions about the incident. “Everything felt like pressure, any sort of family or friend gathering,” her mother said. “And that’s never been her.”
At the last minute, Brooks pulled out of the wedding. Her mother was devastated, but also understood how long trauma can last. She had spent months daydreaming scenarios in which she’d managed to protect her daughter from the police dog. She’d often stare, from a Starbucks across the street, at the hedge where her daughter fell. “Since that day, I carry a folding knife in my pocket when I go walking,” Austin said. While out with her own dog, she encountered a pitbull without a leash and started screaming. “It had this look, like it didn't know what it had done wrong.”
Brooks will soon undergo one more surgery to smooth a lump in her leg and minimize the scars, which a surgeon told her will always be there. But she said she also hopes to become a “walking, talking testimony that if this happens to you, you can still love dogs.”
After all, one of her greatest comforts throughout her recovery has been Neptune, who seemed to grow even more affectionate in the wake of the attack. He’d scoot his backside up to the couch, so she could lean down and wrap her arms around him—a “Neptune Hug,” she called it.
After the attack, Drogo was put in remedial training to practice following orders. He passed a new exam, but the city kept him out of service “out of an abundance of caution,” according to Ludlow, the city manager. She said the dog now lives with Garrison, who left the department in April 2020. Ludlow declined to comment on whether her departure had anything to do with the Brooks incident. The department now has a single K-9 at work.
As Brooks continues to heal, she’s been thinking about how much her Black peers feared dogs growing up. “I don’t think people see the generational trauma, the people who can’t get dogs because mommy got attacked during the civil rights era,” she said. Scholars have made similar conjectures about such fears being passed down, and Brooks noted how her own trauma spiraled out to her mother and boyfriend.
Brooks hopes to use her experience to promote an end to K-9 units, not just in Takoma Park. “I don’t think even criminals should have dogs sicced on them,” she said. “If contributing my voice to a cause can spark change, to outlaw this usage of dogs in the future, to help someone else not miss their mother’s wedding, that’s worth it to me.”
Additional reporting by Michelle Pitcher and AL.com’s Challen Stephens and Ashley Remkus. Video editing by Celina Fang.