In the cell phone video, a man lies sprawled in a parking lot. Two passersby and a state trooper hold him to the ground. A police officer comes into view, dragging a dog on its hind legs.
“You’re gonna get bit!” the officer shouts at the man on the pavement. It’s after 8 p.m. but still daylight outside a busy grocery store.
The man appears to pull his hands underneath him, away from the handcuffs.
The officer, holding the dog’s collar with both hands, guides its mouth toward the man’s right leg, and the animal sinks its teeth into flesh. The man screams in pain.
This scene unfolded during a traffic stop July 7 in Yakima, a city of about 94,000 in the arid farmlands in the south-central part of Washington state. As the bystander-shot video spread online and sparked questions from the community, Yakima police explained to local media that they were using the dog for “pain compliance.”
“Just because force doesn’t look good doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” Yakima Police Chief Matthew Murray said recently to The Marshall Project. “At the end of the day this worked.”
“Pain compliance” is a catch-all term for the methods police officers use to get a suspect under control. The idea is to apply quick, targeted amounts of pain—digging a thumb into a sensitive pressure point, twisting a wrist, stunning with a Taser—to force a person to follow orders.
And police across the country, from Utah, to Ohio, to Arizona, also use dogs to hurt people in an effort to make them obey. The Marshall Project, AL.com, IndyStar, and the Invisible Institute examined more than 150 police dog bites nationwide and found numerous instances of their use for pain compliance—often on people who were unarmed and suspected only of minor offenses like traffic violations. Several suffered severe injuries, requiring surgery or months of recovery.
Videos showing officers hoisting dogs into cars or placing them on top of people already held on the ground have added to a growing examination of what tools should be available to law enforcement to make people submit. About 140 miles northwest of Yakima, the top brass at the Seattle Police Department last year banned using dogs for pain compliance after a controversial bite. And in a few weeks, Washington’s Legislature plans to debate statewide restrictions on the use of police dogs.
“I don’t even know what it means to have a K-9 do pain compliance,” said Geoffrey Alpert, professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina and an expert on use of force. “It’s a violent act.”
Departments that use dog bites for pain compliance say it’s an important tool to get someone into custody without jeopardizing officers’ safety or resorting to deadly force. Experts say dogs should be removed as soon as the person stops struggling or is handcuffed.
Our investigation, however, found several cases in which bites used for compliance went on even after a person had stopped resisting.
Pain compliance isn’t a new idea. Experts said it’s routinely taught to law enforcement officers. Some departments advise officers to start small with wrist or finger twists and, if that fails, work up to Tasers, batons and dogs. Others train officers to go directly to the type of force they think is reasonable to control someone.
There aren’t federal regulations, and court cases offer only general guidance for the use of force. So each department has its own policies for using dogs.
Experts say pain compliance must balance using enough force to get control but not so much pain that the suspect can’t respond to commands. A dog’s bite can flood the body with adrenaline, making it hard to concentrate on anything other than fighting the dog, said Kyle Heyen, a former police officer and consultant on patrol dogs. He compared it to an athlete overwhelmed with adrenaline who can’t hear the noise of the crowd.
“There’s so much pain that people can’t even comprehend what’s going on,” Heyen said. “It’s overriding pain. It’s not going to get their attention.”
Shane McGough called it the worst pain he ever experienced, so terrifying, he said, that it altered the course of his life.
A native Arizonan, McGough had been tubing and drinking on the Salt River outside Phoenix on July 15, 2017, when he and some friends got involved in an argument with someone in the parking area. Two deputies arrived. When one of them began to search a truck belonging to McGough’s friend, McGough objected.
McGough said one deputy grabbed him by the throat, and he reacted with a punch. The second deputy tried to tackle McGough. All three men went to the ground and the second deputy broke his leg. McGough was arrested and taken to a sheriff’s office substation.
Police bodycam videos show officers there used a dog to bite him for more than 3 minutes while he was still handcuffed and on the cell floor. McGough repeatedly begged officers to remove the dog, and cried out, “I’m complying, sir, I’m complying,” while officers holding him down struggled to remove his handcuffs.
“I was in so much pain I would have done anything to get that dog off me,” said McGough, now 29.
McGough sued the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In court documents, the officers’ lawyers argued, in part, that McGough was not being compliant. Bodycam videos show McGough cursing at one deputy and generally questioning why he’s being arrested. The sheriff’s court filings said the officers tried to use a “controlled placement bite” to get his “full submission” and remove the handcuffs.
McGough’s lawyer, Steve Guy, called the bite “jailhouse justice” for the deputy’s broken leg.
“It was purely punitive,” Guy said, adding that McGough was not resisting the officers but “flinching and moving defensively, trying to protect himself.”
McGough pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, and he said he served six months in jail. His lawsuit is still awaiting trial. He said he lost his office job, and later moved to Idaho to be away from people. He now works in construction.
He still has roughly 25 teeth marks, some numbness and brownish, purple scars. But the emotional toll of the dog bite is heavier, he said: “I don’t even really like to go out. Whenever I see a police officer I’m really scared. I start shaking and hyperventilating.”
No national agency tracks police dog bites, or their use for pain compliance. But Randy Means, a lawyer and police consultant who trains departments on proper use of force, said officers use dogs less frequently for that purpose than in decades past. He said police now have other tools like Tasers and chemical sprays, which are easier to control and are less likely to cause life-altering injuries.
“The dog is more unpredictable,” Means said. “The dog chomps into somebody’s leg—you don’t know whether it’s going to be a muscle, a tendon or, God forbid, an artery.”
Still, cases of dog bites used for compliance continue to surface. In Canton, Ohio, police hoisted a dog into a man’s car during a traffic stop after he refused to give his name or an ID. In Salt Lake City, Utah, a video released this fall as part of a larger examination of the police canine unit shows a handler guiding the dog to bite a domestic violence suspect who is lying on the ground as police handcuff him.
The city of Tukwila, just south of Seattle, paid $100,000 in 2016 to settle a lawsuit after police officers sicced a dog onto a man. His alleged offense: dancing and yelling while trespassing in a freight yard. The man was on the ground with officers on top of him when the dog was released to bite his legs and buttocks, according to a dashcam video and court records. The lawsuit argued that the city’s policy of using bite dogs for pain compliance violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on excessive force.
“The technique goes away, and then the pain goes away,” said Joe Shaeffer, the lawyer who represented the Tukwila bite victim. “I don’t think there’s any world in which canines can be considered to be pain compliance.”
Concerns about long, unpredictable bites led the Seattle Police Department to ban the practice.
On Dec. 5, 2018, three officers responded to a call of a homeless man throwing rocks at windows at office buildings south of downtown Seattle. They tried to handcuff the 26-year-old, who was not armed, but he pulled away, according to a police summary.
They wrestled him to the ground. One officer punched him in the side four times, according to the Seattle Office of Police Accountability’s report. Another kneed him. That’s when the third officer released his dog.
For 37 seconds, the dog chewed on the man’s leg and buttocks, biting him six times, the report said. Officers put on the handcuffs.
“First bite,” said the dog handler, according to a description of bodycam video in the report. Then, he and another officer high-fived.
The police department has not released the video, citing a backlog in processing public records requests.
Investigators found the handler violated department policy by using the dog. The handler told them the bite gave the man “something to think of and deal with” so other officers could handcuff him. He also said he’d used his dog for pain compliance “hundreds” of times.
The man who was bitten could not be reached for comment. The department said the handler has left the agency, but referred other questions to the Office of Police Accountability. After investigating the incident, that office recommended outlawing dogs for pain compliance.
“The risk of harm is substantial, and it greatly outweighs the law enforcement interest in gaining compliance with orders,” according to Andrew Myerberg, the office’s director. He said in an email that using dogs for pain compliance is “not reasonable, necessary and proportional.”
Seattle’s ban has caught the attention of national researchers who are studying best practices for police bite dogs.
There’s no clear consensus on when and how these dogs should be used to bite. The country’s roughly 18,000 police agencies need national standards, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy nonprofit.
He said police have struggled to find the most humane ways to arrest people who resist, but biting them with a dog should not be an option outside of extreme circumstances, like dealing with someone armed with a gun. “What’s different here is that with a K-9 you’re actually going beyond anything else, in some ways, because the bite is creating an injury,” he said.
Balancing officers’ need to take people into custody while answering public concerns about use of force is a thorny issue for departments reviewing their tactics.
“A certain segment of the population have been conditioned to believe that all force is wrong,” said Murray, the Yakima police chief. “People who choose to commit criminal acts, a lot of them aren’t compliant. If society expects us to maintain order, then we have to, on a lot of occasions, use force.”
The Yakima dog bite incident began as a routine traffic stop: a Washington State Patrol trooper tried to pull over the driver of a pickup truck. The trooper said he saw the truck cross the road’s centerline.
The driver eventually pulled into the grocery store’s parking lot, got out and cursed at the officer, according to a court filing. The trooper first pulled out his gun and then his Taser, but did not use either. He instead tackled the man, who fell to the ground. Two bystanders helped the trooper and held the man down.
That’s when the Yakima police officer arrived with his patrol dog. He yelled out warnings to the 53-year-old man, according to the video. But passersby can be heard on the video yelling out that the man didn’t appear to speak English and couldn’t understand the officers’ commands. They shouted out warnings to the man in Spanish.
After the dog bit the man, officers handcuffed him and pulled off the dog. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment before being booked into jail. County prosecutors did not file charges against him, according to court records. The case is still being evaluated by municipal court prosecutors.
The man could not be reached for comment.
Murray said the officers’ options were limited. The man was acting erratically near a busy store, he said. Officers did not want to use a Taser or chemical spray because of the proximity of the two bystanders helping to hold him down.
He said his department doesn’t plan to change its policy on using dogs for pain compliance.
But Washington state may end up as a testing ground for more restricted use of bite dogs, possibly forcing the chief’s hand.
At the start of its upcoming session in January, the state’s Legislature plans to take up a sweeping measure aimed at curtailing police use of force. One of the central proposals: restricting police dogs.
The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Jesse Johnson, said he doesn’t want police using dogs to bite people outside of extraordinary circumstances, like an active shooter.
“We feel like less lethal alternatives do not include dogs,” Johnson said. “I see it like a chokehold or a neck restraint. It’s less lethal than a gun, but when it’s used improperly, or if something goes wrong, it can end really badly.”
Video editing by Celina Fang.
Design and development by Elan Kiderman, Gabe Isman and Katie Park.