A lawsuit alleges the Tukwila Police Department allowed a police dog to remain on duty despite a string of bites on suspects and fellow officers that concerned the department so much it had the animal’s teeth filed down.
Tukwila police became so concerned with a police dog’s propensity to inflict severe bites on suspects, as well as on fellow officers, that the animal’s teeth were ordered filed down.
Nonetheless, just weeks after the dental work, K-9 Officer Gino tore into the leg of Luis Yellowowl-Burdeau, a 19-year-old domestic-violence suspect, ripping a fist-sized chunk from his calf, resulting in $81,000 in medical bills and a permanent injury, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.
The German shepherd was retired by Police Chief Mike Villa on Oct. 19, 2012, six days after his encounter with Yellowowl-Burdeau. Gino died three years later, according to media reports.
Yellowowl-Burdeau’s lawsuit alleges that in the three years and 10 months Gino was a member of the Tukwila Police Department, he bit 31 people, including his handler and another law-enforcement officer. The civil-rights lawsuit also alleges the dog’s behavior shows the department’s K-9 unit has “fallen into a pattern of unconstitutional conduct.”
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Richard Jolley, who is representing the city of Tukwila in the suit, defended Gino’s record in an interview, stating that over his career 90 percent of his deployments did not result in injuries that required medical treatment. He said the dog was working constantly and was in routine contact with people, usually without problems, he said.
Chief Villa, in an emailed response to written questions, said that Gino and his handler, Officer James Sturgill, were “a very effective team that were very proactive and served the city well.”
He pointed out that the number of bites averages out to around seven “captures” a year, which he said would not be out of line for a “properly performing” K-9 team in a department with 30,000 service calls a year.
After just six months on the job, Gino was hailed by the media as a hero when he was stabbed in the neck while helping Sturgill apprehend a shoplifter. Then, in January 2012, while tracking a robbery suspect in a trailer court with several other officers, Gino grabbed the calf of King County sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Olmstead, crushing and tearing at the leg.
Olmstead filed a tort claim against Tukwila, which the city settled for $175,000.
The case was one of several reviewed by The Seattle Times for a 2013 story that examined money paid out by cities as the result of lawsuits following K-9 bites.
Documents obtained by Eric Nelson, Yellowowl-Burdeau’s Seattle attorney, indicate that Tukwila police commanders showed growing concern about Gino after the incident with the deputy. In July 2012, according to the documents, the dog was placed on “administrative leave/suspension … Pending an overall review of K-9 contacts from January 2012 till present.”
The next month, Assistant Police Chief Bruce Linton wrote that after “an assessment of several deployments and subsequent suspect contacts, I am directing the filing/rounding out of K-9 Officer Gino’s teeth,” after which the dog would be allowed to return to duty.
The decision was made “in an effort to minimize any potential injuries to any offenders that Gino contacted.”
Experts in K-9 training question the technique.
“I have heard of that happening,” said Shan Hanon, the president of the Washington State Police Canine Association and a dog handler with the Bellingham Police Department. He doesn’t agree with it.
“There is another theory that by grinding down the dog’s teeth you get more pressure on a bite that could actually cause more damage,” Hanon said in an email.
David “Lou” Ferland, a former canine handler, Portsmouth, N.H., police chief and executive director of the 2,800-member U.S. Police Canine Association, said in an interview that he had not heard of that technique being used to minimize bite damage.
“I’ve only heard of it being done for medical reasons — a dog breaking a tooth or the like,” he said. “Never to try to minimize a bite injury.”
On the evening of Oct. 13, 2012, Tukwila police were dispatched to a domestic-violence call from Octavia Burdeau, the mother of Yellowowl-Burdeau, who reported that her son was intoxicated and that they had a fight. According to reports, she had thrown a piece of a broken plastic chair leg at her son and he had picked it up and thrown it back, hitting her in the hand and ear and causing minor injuries.
Yellowowl-Burdeau, who was unarmed, then fled the scene.
According to Jolley, the Seattle lawyer representing Tukwila in the lawsuit, the officers had to arrest Yellowowl-Burdeau because of the state’s mandatory-arrest requirement in domestic-violence cases where injuries result. “And the only way they had to find him was with a dog,” Jolley said.
Gino was deployed on a 30-foot lead and began to track the suspect.
Gino led the officers to a house and then lunged past them into the backyard, where Yellowowl-Burdeau was hiding beneath a large bush, according to the suit. The dog grabbed Yellowowl-Burdeau’s left calf and pulled him from under the bush. The man was tackled, pepper-sprayed and handcuffed.
The dog inflicted a tearing wound that has resulted in multiple surgeries and a skin graft, according to the lawsuit.
Court documents allege that as Yellowowl-Burdeau was loaded into an ambulance, the dog’s handler, Officer Sturgill, can be heard cursing on his car’s dash-camera audio and saying, “Ohhh, we’re going to get in trouble for that one.”
Chief Villa, in his response, said Yellowowl-Burdeau “had attempted to escape and evade officers and posed an imminent threat of serious physical injury to the K-9 handler and others based on his assaultive behavior against a family member and his active attempts to escape officers.”
Yellowowl-Burdeau was charged with fourth-degree assault-domestic violence and being a minor in possession of alcohol. The domestic-violence charge was later dismissed.
The lawsuit against Tukwila was initially filed in King County Superior Court, where a judge dismissed a negligence claim. The remaining claims, alleging use of excessive force, were moved to federal court, where Yellowowl-Burdeau also is asking the judge to find the Tukwila Police Department was involved in an unconstitutional pattern of using excessive force with its K-9 team.
“They chose to file down the teeth of K-9 Gino as opposed to the alternatives of the additional training and supervision for the K-9 Team or removing K-9 Gino from active duty,” the lawsuit says.
Earlier this year, the city paid $100,000 to a man bitten by a police dog while being arrested for trespassing in a Tukwila freight yard. That lawsuit accused the city of having an unconstitutional de facto policy of allowing police dogs to bite suspects as a “pain compliance” technique.