TALLADEGA, Alabama—The Pontiac with a broken headlight sped away from pursuing police, screeched around a corner and skidded to a stop, blocked by a patrol car with its emergency lights flashing.
Ashley White says that’s when she panicked, leapt from the passenger seat and fled into the night.
“The way my friend was driving, I was scared, I thought we were going to wreck,” White recalled recently. And she was frightened by Talladega police. She ran past some houses, jumped a wire fence and hid in a knot of trees.
Racing off leash, a big police dog tracked her. Its handler, Officer Daniel Chesser, lifted it over the fence. It bounded into the thicket. That’s when White, 26 years old at the time, began to scream in terror, “It’s a girl! It’s a girl!”
Police body camera footage, made public here for the first time, shows White lying face down on the ground to surrender as the dog tore into her backside. "I was helpless,” she said in an interview. “I was already down so the dog grabbed my butt and he started shaking. He tasted that blood.”
It took a long time for Chesser to pull the dog off. White’s ordeal was only beginning.
The attack in June 2015 was not the first nor the last in the one-year reign of Andor, a Belgian Malinois who bit people here for minor offenses, for running from police and sometimes for no crime at all. All but one of those mauled were Black. They didn’t use weapons, and the city dropped most charges against them.
From the summer of 2014 to the summer of 2015, Andor sent at least nine people to the hospital, brought the FBI to Talladega and prompted five lawsuits from people he bit. His story, pieced together mostly from thousands of court records and police videos, reveals what can go wrong when a small town employs a powerful animal to police petty crime.
Across the country and around the state, no government body regulates or tracks the use of police dogs, according to an investigation by AL.com, The Marshall Project, IndyStar and the Invisible Institute. Because of its weak laws on public records, Alabama agencies reveal almost nothing to the public about cases in which police dogs bite people, even when an incident results in severe injury or even death. The investigation found that police often use dogs on people suspected only of low-level infractions, and that the resulting injuries can be severe.
Some big cities, including Seattle, Indianapolis, New Orleans and St. Paul, Minnesota, have had to change their use of dogs after documented problems and public outcry.
But as Talladega shows, K-9 units can cause terrible trouble in small towns, too.
Talladega is probably best known for the NASCAR speedway north of town, near the Honda plant that employs many here. The city’s 15,500 residents are split almost equally between Blacks and Whites, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Yet there were hardly any Black officers in the police department during Andor’s stint there, according to court testimony.
When Andor joined the force, Police Chief Jason Busby told the local Rotary Club that the dog would be faster than humans at searching for drugs or chasing suspects, the local newspaper, The Daily Home, reported. The police chief declined to comment. The city manager and a lawyer for the city did not reply to months of calls for comment. The city did not respond to public records requests.
But Alan Lasseter, a lawyer who represented two bite victims, said race was a factor in Talladega officials’ decision to get a police dog in the first place: “Their intent was to sic that dog on the Black members of their community.”
Sgt. Marco Williams, a 25-year veteran, testified under oath that he heard Lt. Alan Kelly telling other officers, “They wanted a dog that would bite a nigger.”
“Basically that he wanted a dog that would bite a Black person,” Williams said later in the deposition. “But he didn’t say it that nice.”
Kelly, now the chief of police in nearby Glencoe, Alabama, told AL.com that he does not recall such an exchange and does not use that racial slur.
"That word does not even come out of my mouth,” he said.
Williams, now retired, referred all calls to Talladega police, saying he did not want to participate in what could appear to be bashing the police.
Chesser told AL.com he was following policy to crack down on crime in Talladega:
“We did our jobs. We caught bad guys. We made a difference.”
Andor first appeared in the local newspaper on March 27, 2014. The article said the 18-month-old dog and Chesser, his handler, were about to head to Indiana for six weeks of training. The police chief was quoted thanking local businesses and citizens whose donations helped make this possible.
The dog came from Vohne Liche Kennels in Indiana, which imports many dogs from Europe, sells them to police agencies all over the country and trains them and their handlers to pursue suspects. The kennel’s owner, Ken Licklider, did not respond to questions about Chesser and Andor.
Chesser testified that he had some experience with drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs earlier in his career. He also had some issues with use of force.
At his first job, in the Birmingham suburb of Calera, the city council publicly reprimanded him for using a stun gun on a 17-year-old who honked at a female officer, according to a 2006 article in The Birmingham News. He said recently that the teen started fighting with him.
The following year, Chesser was sued in federal court for allegedly beating a Black man and improperly jailing him after the car he was riding in didn’t dim its lights. The lawsuit was settled, though court filings contain no details of the agreement. Chesser said recently that there was nothing out of the ordinary about the stop.
Chesser now describes his time at Vohne Liche with Andor as the “most fun of my life.” At the kennel, Chesser later testified, he learned to pull Andor off a person during a bite, rather than rely on a voice command. Some experts say this makes dog-bite injuries more severe.
Andor and Chesser began patrolling Talladega in May, according to The Daily Home, and identified narcotics in several cases.
By August, Williams, the police sergeant, was raising concerns about Andor, who seemed out of control (in at least one case he chased another dog rather than a suspect). And he was worried Chesser was siccing the dog on people without evidence that they were committing a serious crime. Williams wrote a memo suggesting the department suspend K-9 deployments until Chesser could demonstrate control of Andor.
After he raised concerns, Williams later testified, he was removed as supervisor of the K-9 team. According to city records, Williams then went to the human resources department to complain again about the improper use of the dog for minor misdemeanors.
It wasn’t just the dog Williams was worried about. He testified that he had concerns about Chesser himself: “The red flags about the use of force every time he made an arrest. I believe three broken noses later. Or let me say bloodied noses.”
Chesser said this month that he “only used the force necessary. I never felt I was ever excessive. I met force with force.” He said he was never disciplined for using excessive force.
Eventually, Andor bit someone. On Nov. 14, 2014, police began chasing a car they said was being driven recklessly. Crystal Houston, a 28-year-old Black woman, pulled up in front of her house. She told officers she had wanted to stop where she felt safe.
Police video shows that Andor reached her car first, bouncing off the driver’s side door, followed by two officers with guns drawn. An officer opened the door, and Houston stood, hands up. Andor bit her arm. She cried, “Don’t eat me,” and tried to climb back into the safety of the car.
The dog pulled her to the ground. Sobbing, bleeding, Houston said: “Y’all tried to kill me for nothing, sir.”
Officers were laughing, but they grew serious when one looked at the wounds on Houston’s arm. “You need to go to the hospital,” a female officer said. “It’s real bad.”
Houston was arrested on traffic violations and for resisting arrest. Several days later, police added a charge for driving under the influence; she pleaded guilty to that along with resisting arrest, according to court filings. She could not be reached for comment.
After that bite, Capt. John McCoy also sounded the alarm about Andor.
McCoy testified that he told the police chief there was no justification for using the dog on Houston. But, he continued, the chief said the video backed Chesser: “We’re OK, it’s fine.”
In February of 2015, Andor bit a fleeing burglary suspect. Again, Chesser could not get the dog to release. It hung onto the man’s elbow for about two minutes as he screamed. Some experts say bites should last only seconds.
According to the local newspaper, the man was found with stolen beer, cigarettes and power-steering fluid. Court records show he still has an outstanding warrant for burglary.
In March, Chesser sent Andor after a man who had failed to update his address in the state’s sex offender registry. He ran into the woods and the dog pursued. Andor emerged bloodied.
The dog “had a pretty bad stab wound to his back,” the chief told a local paper. “None of his vital organs were damaged, but it was close.”
Police arrested Frank Andrews a couple days later for not living at his registered address and assaulting a police animal. He had bite marks on his leg and hand. He pleaded guilty to assaulting a police dog.
Andrews was the only White person Andor mauled.
In April, Andor bit a Black teenager who ran away from juvenile court, where he was being charged for stealing car batteries, according to a local news report. The 17-year-old was handcuffed at the time, and had surrendered, but slipped and fell. “Andor took this as an escape movement and bit him on the right leg,” Chesser testified.
In June, the dog attacked Ashley White, the woman who ran from the Pontiac. The bite lasted two minutes and four seconds, including a minute after she was in handcuffs.
Here’s Chesser’s description of the White bite, as taken from his report after that night:
Andor was biting her on the buttocks area and I immediately ordered her to place her hands behind her back, and to not fight my dog, which she was doing until I arrived. I handcuffed her and due to the darkness, fumbling with my flashlight, trying to get my leash on Andor's collar and getting it under his neck properly, it took me several moments to get him to release.
Here, from the body camera footage, is the verbal exchange as he finds White in the woods, edited to reduce repetitions:
“It’s a female! It’s a female!”
“Well you shouldn’t have fucking run!”
“Please get him off me! Jesus, Jesus, ahh, ahhh ahhhah! Please, please, please, please, please!”
“Stop fighting! Stop fighting the dog! … Put your fucking hands behind your back.”
“Oh lord, Jesus!...Can you please get this dog off me!”
“You are going to have to wait just a second, lady! You shouldn’t have fucking run.”
One officer running to the scene heard her cries over the radio, laughed and repeated, “Get that dog off me,” according to bodycam footage.
She went to the hospital. The next day, doctors performed anal reconstructive surgery on her. She was not prosecuted.
This bite prompted Williams to go to the FBI. For starters, he said, White hadn’t broken any laws. And as he later explained under oath, Chesser lost control of his dog by putting it, alone and unleashed, over the fence.
White said the FBI interviewed her once, soon after the attack. The FBI referred questions to the U.S. Department of Justice. The U.S. Attorney's office in Birmingham said it had no comment.
The police captain, McCoy, testified that he complained to the chief, as did other officers.
“There was concern that there were more citizens of one type than any other,” said McCoy under oath.
“That almost all were Black citizens, right?” a lawyer asked.
“Almost, yeah,” McCoy replied.
Andor’s next three bites came in rapid succession over the Fourth of July weekend, documents and videos show.
Chesser stopped a driver late on July 3 for a busted tag light. When the man pulled away from a pat-down, the officer tackled him; Andor bit the driver in the thigh while he was lying face down in a mini-mart parking lot with Chesser on top of him. The man, who needed stitches, was charged with marijuana possession and resisting arrest.
Crystal Houston, a 28-year-old Black woman, was stopped for reckless driving. She was bitten on the arm while being handcuffed.
Corey Davis, a 26-year-old Black man, was suspected of burglary. He was bitten on the arm after he stopped running from police.
Frank Andrews, a 48-year-old White man, failed to register as a sex offender. He fled, stabbed Andor, was bitten on the hand and leg.
A Black 17-year-old who was suspected of burglary fled a courthouse in handcuffs. He surrendered but was bitten when he slipped and fell.
Ashley White, a 26-year-old Black woman, was a passenger in a speeding car. She was bitten on the buttocks after she jumped out of the car and hid.
Percy Garrett, a 37-year-old Black man, was stopped for a broken tag light. He tried to avoid a pat-down, surrendered, but was bitten on the thigh.
A 39-year-old Black man was stopped as he was walking home. He was bitten on the ankle after he tried to leave.
Danielle Hall, a 34-year-old Black man, didn’t signal before turning into his driveway. The dog was accidentally released and bit Hall on the arm.
Christopher Twyman, a 38-year-old Black man, walked outside a public housing development. He was beaten by the officer and bitten on the arm.
Less than 24 hours later, another man was walking home and waved as Chesser drove past. The officer, who was investigating a call about possible gunfire, called the man over. The man began to walk, then run, toward his house. Chesser sent Andor, who bit him on the leg in his driveway. He was arrested for trying to elude an officer.
Chesser testified that the third bite was an accident.
He was “following random cars,” looking for drunk drivers after midnight on the morning of July 6. A man turned into his driveway without signaling. Chesser pulled in behind and forced the driver to lie down in his front yard at gunpoint. Suddenly, he wrote in an incident report, Andor came up and bit the man on his forearm.
All three were Black men. All three went to the hospital. All charges against them were dismissed.
Andor’s final bite came soon after.
On the night of July 24, 2015, Chesser drove his cruiser past a public housing complex, Talladega Downs, when he saw someone walking, according to an incident report. As the officer got out of his car, the man raced away. Chesser and Andor chased him.
Christopher Lashaun Twyman, known as Chris T, ran down an unlit grassy lane. Chesser followed, gun drawn, flashlight poking holes in the night, the video shows. Chesser later said he intended to talk to the man as a possible trespasser. But by the time he caught up to Twyman, before they ever spoke, Andor had him by the leg.
Chesser began to hit Twyman with his baton, failed to get him in a headlock because all the blood made him slippery, then blasted him with pepper spray. Twyman dragged himself and the dog toward the light at the front of the brick building, calling to neighbors for help. Andor was still biting after two and a half minutes. Lights went on. Doors opened. Some women yelled, “Get the dog off him!” Chesser snapped: “I can’t get him off with him fighting me, lady.”
After more than five minutes, Chesser pulled Andor off Twyman’s arm.
Chesser’s arrest report that night says Twyman had an open container. He charged him with appearing drunk in public as well as resisting arrest, assaulting an officer, attempting to elude police and harassing a police dog. Police reports say Twyman was taken to the hospital for surgery. According to the municipal court clerk, the city did not pursue any of those charges against Twyman.
(Twyman was arrested last December on an unrelated murder charge; he could not be reached for comment.)
The community had had enough—and so had the police department. Within days, the Rev. Hugh Morris of the Talladega County NAACP called for a criminal investigation. The police asked the district attorney’s office to investigate.
Police placed Chesser on leave. He said he was denounced as a racist on social media, and he feared for his safety: “My life was threatened. My family’s lives were threatened.” He is not a racist, Chesser said.
He moved to Montana, collecting his police salary while working jobs including at a car rental agency at the Bozeman airport and a hot tub company.
In 2016, the lawsuits began, brought by bite victims alleging excessive use of force. Four filed in federal court. Twyman filed a state claim.
Lawyers for bite victims hired one of the nation’s leading K-9 experts, a former handler, who wrote a damning report as part of the federal lawsuits. After watching videos of the bites, the expert concluded: the dog appeared to target Black individuals, that “both the dog and the handler are completely out of control,” and Chesser even put the choke chain on backwards. He noted that Andor is usually off the leash, often ignoring Chesser’s commands.
“As far as canine tactics are concerned, Officer Chesser has none,” Ernest Burwell wrote.
Chesser reported that he had used Andor against suspects 38 times over 14 months; the dog bit someone more than 20 percent of the time.
In May of 2017, Chesser said, he received a notice telling him that after almost two years he could come back to work in Talladega. But he resigned, choosing to stay in Montana.
“I mainly just want people to know that I served my state, country and community for 15 years and was railroaded by race baiters, when it had nothing to do with race,” Chesser said. “I was a good police officer.”
Busby, the police chief, took in Andor, Chesser said, adding, “He was part of our family. We miss him.”
The city settled the last of the four federal lawsuits halfway through 2018. White and three other Black residents received undisclosed financial settlements. Hank Sherrod, White’s lawyer, estimates the combined total was near $1 million.
“I want people to know how dark it can get in an Alabama police department, particularly for people of color in this state,” he said, explaining why he had released videos of attacks.
The settlements prompted no change atop the department; Chief Busby remains in charge. The FBI did not produce a public report on its investigation. The Justice Department “investigated and literally cleared the whole city,” Kelly, the former lieutenant in Talladega who is now chief in Glencoe, told AL.com in September.
In 2018, after the lawsuit settlement, White had cosmetic surgery to try to deal with the missing chunks of her backside, she said.
She used the settlement money to leave Talladega for Atlanta and started a lingerie business. But by 2020 she was back home, living with her mother in rural Eastaboga, northeast of the city. She said the money was gone and she shouldn’t have settled.
White is still dealing with pain and anxiety and depression, she said, and thinks a lot about how dogs were used against civil rights protesters in Birmingham.
She doesn’t know what to tell people if they are ever faced with the threat of a police dog. “I can’t even tell them to surrender,” she said. “That’s what I did.”
AL.com reporter Ashley Remkus contributed to this report.
Photos by Joe Songer. Video editing by Celina Fang.
Design and development by Elan Kiderman, Katie Park and Gabe Isman.