Brigid Bergin: Hi everybody. I'm Brigid Bergin in for Tanzina Vega, and this is The Takeaway. National conversation around police violence is focused on police shootings, but a comprehensive year-long investigation from the Marshall Project is shedding light on another lesser-known form of violence that causes harm to thousands every year, attacks by police dogs. According to their report, there's little oversight on how departments train and use these animals despite cases like this one out of West Montgomery, Alabama in 2018.
Challen Stephens: There was a call late at night about a person in an unoccupied house. The Montgomery city police sent in the canine unit. They found Joseph Pettaway, 51, in the house. He had been fixing up the house earlier in the day. The family said he had a key and had permission to sleep in the small house. The canine found him, bit him and the bite lasted maybe two minutes and Joseph Pettaway bled to death.
Brigid: That's Challen Stephens, editor and investigative reporter for the Birmingham News, Huntsville Times, and Mobile Press Register, who co-reported the investigation. That case is the worst-case scenario, but it points to the risks of a system with little accountability. As the nation examines policing, why isn't there more attention to how and when police dogs are employed? Abbie VanSickle is here to talk about all of this. She's staff writer for the Marshall Project covering criminal justice and was the other reporter on this investigation. Abbie, welcome to the show.
Abbie VanSickle: Thank you so much for having me.
Brigid: Abbie, why did you begin this investigation about police dogs?
Abbie: It really started with a string of cases in Alabama where Challen and I started to try to understand the scope of how often police dogs are used to bite people, what kind of injuries people would suffer from these bites and then what oversight there was. With the more cases that we saw, the more we realized that this was not just happening in Alabama, but was actually happening coast to coast and everything in between.
Brigid: When researching police dog bites, how tough was it to find that information?
Abbie: Some things were pretty simple to find if there had been local news coverage of an incident, especially if there's sort of a video involved, we would see local news stories, but what we really didn't see was any kind of national examination trying to put these incidents together. That's when we started requesting data from departments and it got a lot more difficult to find things like, how often are these dogs used? How often do they actually bite people? What kind of accountability is there when a bite happens, especially if there's a dog that has bitten numerous people or an officer who's been involved in lots of incidents? We wanted to see if there was any kind of national database tracking this, and we didn't find that. So, we started to try to build something where we could see the scope.
Brigid: Abbie, what kinds of injuries do these dogs inflict?
Abbie: This is one of the things that surprised me most in the reporting is the severity of some of the injuries. What we found is that it's not a dog bite like you might think of, like a nip from a family pet. What we saw were injuries that people would suffer life-long consequences from these dog bites. We saw people who had lost their scalps, who had lost limbs, who had these scars that they would carry with them throughout their lives. That seemed to be an important thing that came from a lot of the interviews we had with victims of the bites that they really carried this with them forever.
Brigid: Abbie, how much funding is allocated to the training and use of these dogs?
Abbie: I think that's an excellent question and something that we would really like to know. One thing that we did determine is that each department has a lot of discretion in how and when they use the dogs, how many dogs they have. We found some departments that the dogs are donated through foundations to the departments. There is no clear process for each department. It's very much something where you have to get into the weeds of a particular agency to understand.
Brigid: Do we know how many people are getting bitten by police dogs and how big this issue is, and to what extent race or gender play into these numbers?
Abbie: What we can say about the number is that we looked at a medical study that examined police dog bites in emergency rooms. That study estimated there were a few thousand bites a year. We have been able to track bites by the 20 largest municipal policing agencies. We have some sense to try to back that number up, but we don't know a precise number for how many bites there are each year in the United States.
As far as race and gender, one thing from the cases we examined, about 140 cases from the last couple of years, and the overwhelming number of people were men. We found very few women and that's also backed up by the academic studies we were able to find. With race, it's a little bit more difficult because we had asked departments specifically for race data and we don't have that from very many departments. We do have hints that in some places that there's been disproportionate use of the dogs on people of color.
We see that in the Department of Justice investigation into Ferguson. We see it in an examination from a few years ago of the LA County Sheriff's department. We see it in a few places, but we really would love to be able to take a systemic view of this from departments throughout the country.
Brigid: Abbie who trains these dogs, and are there specific guidelines for their training?
Abbie: That's, again, an agency-specific thing. Some departments, large departments will have training within their own policing agency and we as reporters spent time watching some of those trainings, but also there are small kind of mom and pop trainers throughout the country, and then some sort of independent larger training organizations. It's sort of a hodgepodge, again, very department-specific. There are not national requirements for training in any kind of standardized way.
Brigid: Given there's no consistency in the training, is there consistency in the types of crimes that have to be committed in order for dogs to be used?
Abbie: That's another thing that we found is very dependent on the agencies. In some agencies, we found to use the dog, it has to be a very serious crime, a violent felony with a very specific list of the kinds of cases. In other places, there's broad discretion for officers. We also found supervision really depends on the agency and some places a supervisor really has to sign off before a dog can be used. Then, other places the dogs, we found, had been used on people who were accused of very low-level crimes. We're talking traffic stop, an expired license plate, things that are considered very low-level.
Brigid: Abbie, just briefly, given that police reform and racial equality are in the spotlight right now in this country, do you think departments will stop using police dogs or is there any organization fighting this?
Abbie: We are starting to see a re-examination of the use of police dogs in some departments throughout the country. Salt Lake city police department had a video that was released recently showing a man with his hands in the air as the dog was being released on him and biting him. In the wake of that, the department has suspended the use of these kinds of dogs, the kind of dogs that are used to bite people as they examine that incident.
Brigid: Abbie VanSickle is staff writer for the Marshall Project covering criminal justice. Thanks for this information and joining us today.
Abbie: Yes. Thank you so much for having me.
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