Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best has overturned a misconduct finding against a K-9 officer who broke department rules when he let his police dog bite a robbery suspect’s arm for more than 30 seconds after the man had been taken to the ground, newly released records show.
The unarmed man told the officer, “I surrender, sir,” pleaded, “Sir, please, please,” and said “I’m sorry,” according to a department official’s description of the July 20, 2018 incident. The officer responded “don’t [expletive] with my dog” and “don’t move” as the man continued to yell in pain.
The chief’s decision comes at a time when the department’s ability to hold officers accountable for misconduct has drawn close scrutiny, including a federal judge’s ruling that the department had fallen partly out of compliance with court-ordered reforms.
Although the unidentified officer violated department policy, he acted on “very specific training” he had previously received that allowed him to wait for a backup officer to arrive before releasing the dog, Best informed Mayor Jenny Durkan, the City Council and other city officials in a July 30 letter made public Monday on the department’s internal-investigation website.
The civilian director of the department’s Office of Police Accountability, Andrew Myerberg, had found the initial use of the dog to stop a fleeing felony suspect was reasonable. The suspect had been seen with several other men kicking an older man during the theft of a cellphone, Myerberg wrote in a detailed case summary.
“However, once the Subject was on the ground, had surrendered, and was no longer physically resisting, it was not proportional … to allow the K-9 to continue biting the Subject for nearly 30 seconds,” Myerberg concluded.
The man was treated at a hospital, where stitches were required for puncture wounds.
Department policy states that when a bite occurs, the handler should as “rapidly as possible” determine if the suspect is armed and call off the dog the “first possible moment the canine can be safely released.”
If the suspect is unarmed, the handler “shall order the canine immediately to release the bite,” according to the policy.
However, Best noted in her letter that the officer’s sergeant, lieutenant and captain had found his use of force to be consistent with training provided to the unit, which allowed K-9 officers to “hold a bite until another officer was present.”
In the letter, which is required when the chief reverses a misconduct finding, she wrote that the department has taken steps to assure all of its K-9 officers are properly trained in best practices, but that it would be unfair to find the officer used excessive force.
“Ultimately, I agree with the OPA Director that it did [violate policy],” Best added. “I am also mindful, however, that officers are regularly called upon to manage often highly dynamic circumstances and that they must rely heavily on their training to do so.”
Citing her “full respect and appreciation to OPA and its thorough, fair investigation,” Best changed the finding to “Not Sustained,” while referring the officer for additional training. If she had sustained the finding, the next step would have been to determine the appropriate discipline for the officer.
Part of the incident was captured on the officer’s body-worn camera, but the video hasn’t been released. The Seattle Times has filed a public-disclosure request for the video.
Durkan’s office did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.
In his interview with the OPA, the officer said he didn’t immediately release the dog because he was worried the suspect still posed a threat.
Myerberg found the officer had other options, including using his gun as cover or threatening to release the dog again.
Instead, the officer “allowed the K-9 to continue the bite even though the Subject no longer presented an active threat,” Myerberg wrote, noting the man wasn’t wearing a shirt and had no bulging pockets, nor any other signs of a weapon.
Best, in her letter, said the department has been working on a new canine policy that will include “specific language governing when officers are to release a canine’s bite.”
In addition, the department’s inspector general will conduct an audit of the canine unit. Thirteen dog handlers, including the involved officer, have been sent for outside training on best practices, Best wrote.
A deputy chief also met with members of the K-9 unit to reiterate the department’s expectations on the use of canines, according to the letter.
City attorneys, in a July 31 court filing, notified the federal judge overseeing reforms, James Robart, that the proposed new policy “clarifies and formalizes SPD’s practices involving patrol canines.”
Robart ruled last year that the city had reached full compliance with a 2012 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department, requiring the Police Department to address allegations that officers too often resorted to excessive force and displayed troubling evidence of biased policing.
But in a May ruling, after an arbitrator overturned the firing of an officer who punched a handcuffed woman, Robart found the city had fallen partly out of compliance. He cited deficiencies in the Police Department’s discipline and appeal process stemming from the city’s contract with Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), even as he strongly praised the department’s overall reform efforts.
The city has asked a King County judge to overturn the arbitrator’s ruling, as it prepares a response, due Aug. 15, to Robart’s request for a working plan to remedy the deficiencies.
In April, Best opted not to fire an officer who, after a string of previous misconduct, lied when he insisted he did not retaliate against a citizen who had insulted him over the towing of a car in February 2018.
Officer Frank Poblocki told internal investigators he was engaging in community policing. His body-camera video, however, showed him wheeling an office chair to a spot outside the man’s workplace and, while sitting there some 40 minutes, telling others he was seeking an apology because the man had been disrespectful.
Best chose to suspend Poblocki for 30 days without pay, despite Police Department policy and language in the city’s contract with SPOG that presumes officers will be fired for dishonesty in their official duties. Durkan backed the chief’s decision.