Astor, a now-retired Lakewood police dog, has been named in four lawsuits filed over bites since 2009, including one that was settled for $225,000.
A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit against Lakewood Police Department for its use of a now-retired police dog that has been at the center of four civil-rights lawsuits for inflicting savage bites.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton, in an order last week sending the case to trial, said allegations contained in a lawsuit filed in 2015 by Kerry Tucker “could determine that Lakewood’s established K-9 procedures or customs” were responsible for Tucker’s injuries.
Tucker was near his home and walked to a nearby homeless camp in a copse of trees with a friend the night of June 27, 2012. Lakewood police have conceded Tucker was a bystander and doing nothing wrong when Lakewood Officer James Syler deployed K-9 Astor in pursuit of another man wanted on a felony domestic-violence warrant.
According to the lawsuit, Syler gave a verbal warning to “Get off the trail” when he released the dog. Tucker acknowledged that he heard the warning and said he complied when the dog attacked him, causing a painful injury that his attorneys say caused permanent damage.
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Lakewood police Chief Mike Zaro declined to comment on the judge’s order, citing the ongoing litigation, and referred all questions to the city’s attorneys.
Astor has a history of inflicting severe bite injuries and has been named in four lawsuits since 2009, including one that was settled for $225,000 in 2014 after a Tacoma man, Chad Boyles, was attacked while he was walking near his home. Astor was being used to search for a domestic-violence suspect that was supposed to be in the area.
The dog ripped Boyle’s arm to the bone before Syler could call him off, according to the lawsuit.
Another lawsuit was filed by Noel Saldana, who was left with a permanent limp and disfiguring injuries after Astor found him hiding under a bush where he had fled following an argument with his wife.
A jury found the force used was legal, however, Lakewood agreed to pay more than $42,000 for Saldana’s medical bills. Saldana underwent several surgeries and lost a fist-sized piece of his calf in the incident.
In 2009, a felon named Richard Conley was paid $15,000 after Astor bit him in the back and arm while he was trying to hide in a bedroom of a house. According to a lawsuit, he required three surgeries and spent nine days in the hospital.
Astor was retired from the force in 2013 and sold to Syler, his handler, for $1. Richard Jolley, the city’s attorney, said Monday the arrangement is standard among most police departments.
In his ruling, Leighton said that a jury could come to the conclusion that the previous incidents in which Astor had caused severe injuries could be seen as ignoring the potential that the dog would injure an innocent.
“A jury could find the city’s decision not to alter their procedures after the previous incidents could be found to be deliberate indifference to the risk that an innocent bystander liker Tucker would be exposed to excessive force,” Leighton wrote.
The city argued that none of the previous cases found that the victim’s rights had been violated, but Leighton said a jury could find the city’s policies and procedures were wanting.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has found that the deployment of a K-9 dog trained in the “bite-and-hold” technique is “the most severe force authorized short of deadly force.”
The city argued that it tracks and reviews every K-9 bite, but Leighton said that given Astor’s history and the city’s lack of discipline or remedial action following the other bites, a jury could find that review policy lacking.
Jolley argued that Syler’s warning to clear the trail that night was sufficient to absolve the city of liability despite Tucker’s injuries, which he said did not require surgery and were relatively minor.
According to information compiled by The Seattle Times in 2013, Washington cities have paid out nearly $1 million in claims for police dog-bite related injuries over a five-year period.