A half-mile from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where police once beat civil rights protesters, Selma police pulled over an unarmed 36-year-old Black man in 2018 for a series of traffic violations that began with him rolling his white Jaguar through a stop sign.
Robert Fitts got out of the car, arms raised, eyewitnesses said, but was quickly knocked to the ground and swarmed by three White officers as a fourth White officer led a lurching police dog to his body and ordered an attack. A Black officer arrived at that moment, yelling obscenities as he demanded that the dog be pulled away. Instead, he watched Fitts scream and writhe on the ground as the dog sunk his teeth deep into his leg.
“Get the dog back! Get the godd— dog back!” Selma Police Officer Robert Tyus shouted, as the other officers ignored his pleas and the German shepherd continued to bite and shake Fitts’s left leg for nearly 30 seconds.
The incident is one of at least 37 video-recorded K-9 attacks that have surfaced over the past three years across the country, many showing people under attack even though they are unarmed, have surrendered to police, are already handcuffed or are innocent bystanders, a Washington Post analysis shows.
Similar to the way that footage of chokeholds and fatal shootings has led to a reassessment of police tactics, video of attacking police dogs and the resulting physical injuries are beginning to alter the image of the controllable, lifesaving K-9, sometimes known as the Lassie or Rin Tin Tin effect. For decades this image has blunted the scrutiny of the roughly 15,000 police dogs now working in the United States, civil rights groups, policing experts and attorneys say.
In some cases, the officers themselves have been alarmed by how K-9s were used by fellow officers. But as Officer Tyus found in Selma, that can put them at odds with their department. Selma police said use of the dog was justified, but Tyus stood by his position in August at a bail hearing for Fitts. “I stated this is some bulls— because I felt like he could have been taken in custody without being bitten,” Tyus testified. Video of the attack on Fitts was obtained by The Post and has not been previously made public.
The image of police dogs started to shift several months ago in Salt Lake City. Video showed Jeffery Ryans, a 36-year-old Black man who was about to leave for his job as a train engineer, putting his hands in the air and kneeling on the ground in his backyard as he told officers he was surrendering. A German shepherd was unleashed on him anyway, chomping down on his left leg, causing injuries that required multiple surgeries in an attempt to repair nerve, muscle and tendon damage.
“I believe when people view videos like this they will feel disgusted, distressed, shocked and angered,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, a Democrat, said in an interview. “It will look antiquated, brutal and inappropriate in this day and age. These videos are a catalyst for change. I believe we are at a tipping point.”
The Salt Lake City officer – known as a K-9 handler – has been charged with felony aggravated assault. More than 100 videos from an additional 18 police dog attacks have been referred by the police department to the local district attorney for possible prosecution.
Key videos from those encounters, reviewed by The Post, show officers repeatedly siccing dogs on individuals after they had surrendered or were under the physical control of officers. Crucial details about those incidents, such as the race of those attacked, have not been made public – aside from the Ryans case – and were not always discernible from the videos.
Outside of the Salt Lake City incidents, The Post reviewed 18 other cases captured on video and documented in police reports and legal records across the country. In a majority of the cases, officers were cleared of any wrongdoing and the departments have announced no changes to their K-9 programs. In a few cases, the people who were bitten have received financial settlements through civil lawsuits. Only two of the people who were bitten were armed.
In at least half of the 18 cases, the victim was Black. Virtually all of the K-9 handlers – at least 16 of the 18 – were White.
In four cases, the people were in handcuffs when the K-9 attacked them. Another four were accidental bites of innocent bystanders who were walking their dog, sleeping in a tent or strolling down the sidewalk.
One of the innocent bystanders was 39-year-old Raymond Roberts, who is White, and was sleeping outside in a tent in Albuquerque when a police dog in pursuit of a suspect in an attempted homicide bit him instead. The attack took place in 2016 and the video became public in 2018. Roberts suffered multiple bites and tears to his left shoulder and arm that required several surgeries that did not fully restore the use, mobility or strength in his arm, medical records show. The city settled with Roberts last year for $390,000.
Charges are rare in K-9 cases, but a sheriff’s deputy in North Carolina pleaded guilty last year to a misdemeanor for siccing a dog on an unarmed Black man who was on the ground, surrounded by five other officers and experiencing a mental health crisis. The department put its K-9 officers and their 11 dogs through new training, and the number of bites has dropped from an annual average of eight to zero the past two years.
In Graton, Calif., Jason Anglero-Wyrick, 36, was mauled in April by a K-9 as he lay face down, his hands wrapped behind his back in an act of surrender, video shows. The officer was unable to get the dog to release its grip on command, and as the dog was being pulled off Anglero-Wyrick, it ripped a hunk of flesh from his right leg the size of a baseball, leading to a three-week hospital stay and multiple surgeries, records show.
The mauling left him disfigured, and months of physical therapy has not helped him regain the full use of his leg. He was suspected of assaulting a neighbor and threatening them with a gun, but the charges were later dropped.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department, which has eight dogs and K-9 handlers, said the use of the police dog was justified. In a statement, the department said it attempted to “safely detain” Anglero-Wyrick but that he refused to obey their commands, so the dog, named Vader, was used to force Anglero-Wyrick to comply.
Anglero-Wyrick said in an interview that he thought he was going to die.
“I could tell if I moved while the dog was on me, they were going to shoot me. So I allowed the dog to keep eating me the whole time,” he said. “They sadistically watched the dog eat my leg and kept saying ‘Good dog. Good dog.’ They ruined my life.”
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Richard Polsky, who holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has served as an expert witness in K-9 court cases, said the dogs are referred to as “officers” but do not have the ability to make judgment calls like their human counterparts. They often bite without releasing, even after repeated orders to do so, and sometimes bite the wrong person.
Their handlers, he said, often cannot manage them.
“These dogs are already genetically programmed for aggression, and then they put them through attack training,” Polsky said. “They can’t be controlled.”
Charlie Mesloh, a former K-9 handler and professor at Northern Michigan University, said this lack of control is evident in the types of tools now sold to K-9 officers, including a “breaker bar” that Mesloh said officers use on “the low-down.”
The metal bar is slipped between the dog’s teeth by the K-9 handler, one supply company says on its website, because “many dogs will refuse to ‘out’ off the suspect,” meaning they will not release.
“In this day and age when everything is videotaped and uploaded to social media, the noncompliance of the dog to release on command can cause problems in the courtroom and with administration,” the advertising pitch continues.
Mesloh said if this tool is needed, it means the police dog is poorly trained and “should have never become a K-9 in the first place.”
The force of a K-9 bite can be as much as 1,500 pounds per square inch – three times as powerful as the jaws of an untrained dog of similar size, experts say. German shepherds and Belgian Malinois are the most common K-9 breeds, weighing 70 to 90 pounds. They are trained to bite with a full mouth, using all of their teeth.
An estimated 40,000 people were treated for K-9 attacks in hospital emergency rooms from 2009 to 2018, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although deaths are rare, the nonprofit Marshall Project journalism group found at least three people had died of injuries from police dog bites since 2011.
K-9 trainers and handlers dispute the characterization of the out-of-control police dog or of officers misusing them. They say the dogs can save the lives of both suspects and officers. Suspects sometimes hide, hoping to evade or ambush officers, and dogs are able to sniff them out. Also, K-9 handlers say dogs can subdue fleeing suspects who might otherwise be shot.
Don Slavik, executive director of the United States Police Canine Association, said the public typically sees video footage of K-9 attacks from a single camera angle – sometimes a video taken by a bystander or a police-worn body camera – that focuses on the moment of the dog bite. This can warp the reality of what took place, he said. Other videos from different angles can paint a clearer picture but are not always available.
“There are some things that really look bad on the body-worn cameras, but you don’t always know what all the evidence is when a video is released,” said Slavik.
Some psychologists say the premise behind the use of police dogs – to subdue and get a suspect to become motionless – is faulty at its core.
Humans are hard-wired to actively fight an attack that might lead to serious injuries or death. Many Black suspects also have frightening personal histories of ancestors being hunted by canines. Enslaved people who fled plantations were tracked down and mauled by dogs, sometimes to death, their bodies brought back as a warning to other enslaved people. K-9s were also routinely used in the 1960s on civil rights protesters.
Psychologists say such attacks typically affect our sympathetic nervous system, triggering a fight-or-flight response. This makes it difficult for someone who is being attacked by a dog to remain motionless as officers command them to do just that. It also makes it hard for them to hear police commands, because hearing can also be diminished while in this state.
“Our brains are responding and reacting instinctually. Our heart starts beating faster. Our blood pressure goes up,” said Roxanne Donovan, a psychology professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. “We get tunnel vision, honing in on the threat or perceived threat that we need to eliminate.”
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Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said he first learned about the K-9 attack on Jeffery Ryans the morning of Aug. 11 – four months after the April incident. He found out from a local newspaper, the Salt Lake Tribune.
“It was disheartening,” Brown said, adding that he keeps questioning how the K-9 program “got so far off base.” Brown immediately ordered a department audit of all video footage associated with K-9 bites, dating back to 2016.
There were 34 incidents with video footage. More than half were troublesome, including one involving a teenage boy who broke into a fast-food restaurant and was pulled off a countertop by an officer and slammed to the floor.
The officer pinned the teenager’s neck, chin and right shoulder to the floor as he repeatedly ordered the dog to attack. The boy screamed “I’m a 14-year-old … please, please, please!” as the dog bit and shook his leg for 15 seconds before the video abruptly ends. It unclear how long the attack went on.
This is one of the videos Brown referred to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill to determine if additional criminal charges were warranted outside the Ryans case. Gill assigned two full-time prosecutors to review the videos and police reports associated with the incidents. Gill said he expects additional charges.
“Are there scenes where people have otherwise given up? Yes, we are seeing that,” Gill said in an interview. “Are there scenes that our team has observed that are of concern? Absolutely. And have they violated peoples’ rights in a violent and gratuitous way? Yes.”
The Salt Lake City K-9 program has been suspended and no decision has been made about whether it will resume. All five K-9 officers, the sergeant and the captain are on administrative leave. The Utah State Fraternal Order of Police is holding a fundraiser to help Salt Lake City K-9 officers with their legal bills.
Of special concern to the union is Gill’s most recent move to secure and review K-9 videos from other police departments within Salt Lake County. The union’s website features pictures of the Salt Lake City department’s K-9s with their handlers, with the faces of officers blurred. The site says the K-9 unit is “Sim Gill’s first target, but it won’t be his last.”
Brent Jax, president of the union, said using K-9s for apprehension is facing increased scrutiny nationwide.
“It’s a trend,” said Jax. “It is part of this anarchist movement to take tools away from the police. Next they will come after our tasers and batons until the only thing we have left is our hands and a gun.”
Jax said he believes the officer charged in the attack on Ryans, Nickolas Pearce, will win in court, referencing an oft-cited 1988 federal appeals court ruling -Robinette v. Barnes – that has prevented many prosecutors from filing charges in K-9 cases.
The case established that a K-9 attack used to “to seize a felony suspect does not constitute deadly force,” making it difficult to successfully prosecute officers on felony assault charges for the dog bites.
Those who have been attacked can face other legal obstacles. Six civil rights and trial attorneys interviewed by The Post said that police routinely offer K-9 bite victims plea deals. In exchange for a guilty plea for resisting arrest, police departments often drop other charges or reduce them from felonies to misdemeanors.
By admitting guilt in resisting officers or the K-9, it becomes nearly impossible for a civil lawsuit to be successful. It also makes it difficult for criminal charges to stick.
“In order to be found guilty of resisting arrest, one factual element that must be proved is that the officer was acting lawfully at the time of the event. Thus pleading guilty legally establishes that the officer was acting lawfully,” said attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who is representing the man attacked in the case in Graton.
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Chiquita Sanders, one of two eyewitnesses in the Selma case, was gazing out a window when she saw what she first thought was a funeral procession. It was Fitts, driving slowly in his Jaguar, as patrol cars trailed behind him. Then a compliant Fitts emerged from his car with his hands “completely in the air,” Sanders said.
The Selma Police Department – which has 64 officers, with five in the K-9 unit -describes a very different encounter with Fitts.
They say it began when Fitts failed to stop at an intersection in the public housing where he grew up and where his mother still lives. (His uncle, Reginald Fitts, who is a lieutenant with the department, declined interview requests.)
He was pulled over, and as a patrol officer approached him with his gun drawn, Fitts drove away at a “high rate of speed through residential housing,” running two red traffic signals. Rather than raising his hands in surrender, police say, Fitts attempted to flee on foot.
Sanders and police agree on what came next. A K-9 was led to Fitts and ordered to bite him.
From the window of the power company where she worked, Sanders said she panicked as she watched the scene unfold. “I was hysterical,” she said. “When I saw the dog I started screaming, ‘Get the dog! Get the dog!’ “
The video shows an officer had grasped Fitts’s right wrist and appeared to be applying handcuffs. However, as the dog was ordered to move in and bite Fitts, that officer withdrew, the video shows.
The dog, named Shorty, was only used because Fitts was resisting arrest, police said. They acknowledged that Tyus, the Black officer who arrived as the K-9 was ordered to bite Fitts, “attempted to get his fellow officers to pull the dog away,” court records show.
They also acknowledge that the officers disregarded Tyus’s pleas and said that the dog was removed once Fitts was “fully arrested.” Hospital records show Fitts had multiple bite and puncture marks on both legs, and sutures were needed to close a “deep wound on the right thigh.”
Fitts faces a felony charge of threatening a police officer and four misdemeanor charges, including resisting arrest, in a criminal case stemming from the incident. His trial is scheduled for Feb. 1.
The video from a body-worn police camera – leaked to Fitts’s family – is now the cornerstone of a civil lawsuit against the department, which notes the long history of police violence in the small Southern town.
In a text message exchange with The Post from jail in Alabama, Fitts said he “blanked out” during the attack even though, after viewing the video, he sees that he appears to be fully conscious as he thrashes about.
“I saw the video of me screaming,” he wrote, but said he was in so much pain “mentally I had checked out in my mind I couldn’t feel the attack.” He said he thought he was “gonna die.”
Video: http://www.washingtonpost.com/video/national/investigations/these-brutal-police-dog-attacks-were-captured-on-video-now-some-cities-are-curtailing-k-9-use/2020/11/29/588a6592-69e9-4592-8325-1ed1135a277c_video.html(REF:brownz/The Washington Post)
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