Trained to “bite and hold” suspects, some K-9 patrol dogs in the Puget Sound area have bitten innocent bystanders more than once, inflicting major injuries and triggering expensive lawsuits.
By Mike Carter
Mark Roberts had fallen asleep in the family room of his Puyallup rambler, the windows open to take in the breeze of a mild September evening. He was jolted awake by the sound of a helicopter.
Roberts, clad in a T-shirt and boxers, walked out the back door and took a few steps into his driveway for a better look.
Seconds later, he was in a bloody life-or-death struggle with a beast with a badge.
“I caught something moving out of the corner of my eye,” recalled Roberts, 58, of the split-second before he was “flattened” by K-9 Officer Vasko, a police dog with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, that night in 2008.
Vasko, a big German shepherd, hit Roberts at full stride, knocking him to the ground. The snarling dog grabbed Roberts’ right thigh in its mouth and bit.
“The pain was something indescribable,” said Roberts. He screamed. “It was a sound I’d never heard before coming out of me.”
Roberts is not the only innocent bystander to be caught in the crushing grip of Vasko’s jaws.
Three people, including Roberts, have filed claims against Pierce County after being bitten by the dog. Two claims have cost Pierce County $352,500: the $350,000 settlement with Roberts earlier this y ear after he filed a federal lawsuit, and $2,500 awarded to a 53-year-old woman after she was bitten by Vasko while the dog was tracking a suspect, according to court documents.
A third claim, by a woman bitten by Vasko while she was painting a sign in 2010, is pending.
A Seattle Times review of dog-bite claims from the risk managers and insurers of more than 100 Washington cities and counties shows such incidents happen several times a year in the state.
Over the past five years, at least 17 people claim they were mistakenly attacked by police dogs from Western Washington law-enforcement agencies. As a result, the agencies have paid nearly $1 million in damages, with several large claims pending.
In many cases, individual dogs are responsible for several attacks, an issue that dog trainers and experts say is a warning sign that the dog and handler might need additional training.
Of those 17 incidents, three dogs — two from Pierce County and one from Seattle — were responsible for nine of the incidents and more than two-thirds of the damages paid.
Even after multiple bites on innocent people, many K-9s remain on duty.
A Pierce County sheriff’s dog, K-9 Officer Cliff, has been named in three claims, which have cost the county $247,000. Those costs included a $230,000 settlement with Alda Zaldivar-Cira, 53, an Auburn landscaper who was attacked in August 2010 while he and his sons were attempting to help police capture a fleeing criminal.
Cliff also bit a 17-year-old Graham boy who was watching a police search from a friend’s driveway in 2008. According to court documents, deputies had to pry the dog’s mouth off the boy’s leg with a flashlight. Pierce County paid him $17,000.
Cliff was named in a third action after he severely bit a passenger in a car that police had been chasing. That was the same incident in which Roberts was attacked by Vasko, who also was involved in the search for the driver.
A federal judge dismissed the passenger’s civil-rights claim, finding that the bite was the “accidental effect of otherwise lawful government conduct.”
Sgt. Jerry Bates, a spokesman for Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor, said Cliff remains on the force.
Critics say the frequency and severity of bites on innocent people are tied directly to training. Most U.S. dogs are trained to “bite and hold,” releasing their prey only on orders from their handlers.
In Europe, dogs are trained to track prey, but rather than attack, they are taught to circle and bark at the target — a technique known as “find and bark” or “bark and contain.” The dog bites only if the suspect attempts to flee or the dog or handler is attacked.
Both the U.S. Department of Justice and the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommend this type of training for U.S. police dogs. However, there is resistance to the “find and bark” method among many law-enforcement agencies.
“K-9s, like any other tool issued to and used by law enforcement in the application of any force ... carry an inherent risk,” said Bates, the Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman.
“The decision to utilize a K-9 team for a wanted-felon search is not made lightly,” he said.
Bates said one way not to be injured by a dog is to do what the dog’s handler tells you to do.
That is, if the handler is around.
Alone in the grip
Roberts, the Puyallup man attacked outside his home, said Vasko’s attack lasted at least five minutes before the dog’s handler, Deputy Micah Lundborg, was able to locate him and call him off.
“He yelled at me, ‘Don’t fight the dog,’ ” Roberts recalled.
In the meantime, the dog inflicted a muscle-crushing wound to his right thigh that took nearly two years to heal. The dog also bit his left leg and worked its way from hand to biceps on his left arm, tearing flesh every inch of the way.
His wife and daughter awoke to find Roberts sitting in a pool of blood in the driveway.
“This was a life-or-death situation for me,” Roberts said.
Bates said Vasko retired when Lundborg was promoted.
Another dog, from the Lakewood Police Department, has been named in two claims involving serious injuries, including attacking the wrong man in a field while searching for a suspect in a domestic-violence assault in May 2011.
Chad Boyles was simply taking a walk to cool off following the argument when he was attacked by K-9 Officer Astor, according to his claim. The dog bit him on the arm and shoulder, leaving a deep wound in his forearm.
“All I could hear was crunching,” Boyle recalled. He filed a $3 million claim against the county last week.
Lakewood police have declined to comment on the claim.
Astor is also named in a federal lawsuit filed by Noel Saldana over injuries he suffered on June 27, 2010.
In this instance, Saldana was being sought by the dog and his handler after police responded to Saldana’s apartment on a report of domestic violence. He was gone by the time police arrived. Although nobody had been injured, the officers decided they had reason to arrest him, according to police reports.
Saldana, 27, said he was intoxicated and urinating in some bushes several blocks away when he heard a “loud voice telling me to get down.”
“I did exactly as I was told,” he said, but Astor tore into his leg.
The attack lasted only a few seconds, but the animal tore out a fist-sized piece of his calf, rending ligaments and gristle. Saldana said the sound was “like tearing a chicken into pieces.”
He was never charged with a crime.
Astor continues to work, the department said.
One of the largest settlements — $175,000 — resulted not from a bite on an innocent bystander, but on a law-enforcement officer.
In January 2012, King County sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Olmstead was attacked by a Tukwila police K-9 named Gino while he was approaching the trailer of a suspect. The dog tore into his right calf.
“ I was forced to the ground and screamed in pain,” Olmstead wrote in his claim against Tukwila. “I seriously contemplated shooting the K-9.”
In the U.S., police dogs are trained to bite and bite hard.
A study comparing injuries caused by police dogs and bites from domestic dogs, published in 2006 in the medical Journal of Injuries, found “much higher” rates of hospitalization for those who tangled with K-9s. The study’s author, Dr. Peter C. Meade, found that police dogs were far more likely to inflict multiple, serious bites than were domestic dogs, and victims’ injuries were almost twice as likely to require surgery.
Part of the reason, Meade concluded, was that the dogs used by police were bred for size and trained to bite and not let go.
Most U.S. police departments use large breeds such as German shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Rottweilers. With the police-dog injuries he studied, Meade said the forces the animals inflicted reached 800 pounds of pressure per square inch — enough to puncture sheet metal.
Many, if not most, of the K-9 patrol dogs used by police departments today are bred in Europe and receive their initial training there. The dogs can cost up to $4,000 and their training an additional $10,000, according to experienced dog trainers and handlers.
Initially, most of the dogs are exposed to “Schutzhund” training, a sport developed by German dog breeders in the early 1900s as a test for the large shepherd breeds. It is demanding, and involves working closely with a human handler and being tested in difficult conditions for tracking skills, obedience and protection.
According to the Web page for the German-based Schutzhund training organization DVG (Deutscher Verband der Gebrauchshundsportvereine), the dogs are trained to track and find human targets.
But rather than attack, a dog learns to circle and bark at the target, the “find and bark” technique that is at the core of Schutzhund and is favored by police in most European countries.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police, in its model canine-use policies, said the “find-and-bark approach” is preferable, partly because it reduces the risk of the dog inflicting serious injuries on a suspect “or even an innocent bystander before the handler can locate the dog and command it to disengage.”
U.S. K-9 trainers, handlers and researchers say that “find and bark” sounds great but doesn’t work in practice.
They claim it endangers the dog and handler, and leaves too much discretion to the animal.
The ready availability of firearms in the U.S. — unlike Europe — also undermines the use of the find-and-bark technique. A dog that stands off and barks makes an easy target, and so does the police officer/handler coming up behind it, they said.
Zbigniew Kasprzyk, vice president of the Washington State Police Canine Association and a 27-year veteran dog handler for the King County Sheriff’s Office, said the threat of the bite is what it’s all about.
“If I’m going to deploy my dog, I want that person to know they are going to be bitten unless they come out. It’s a huge incentive,” he said.
At the same time, Kasprzyk said, it should be the handler’s decision, not the dog’s.
Kasprzyk points out that most dogs are deployed hundreds of times without incident, but that accidents happen. Dogs lose tracks and make mistakes, and the whole point of having a handler is to control the animal.
A dog that repeatedly bites the wrong person, or whose deployments often result in serious injuries, needs to be looked at, as does his handler and their training regime.
“If you’re seeing one dog with several problems from an agency, it’s something that the agency should be addressing.
“These incidents are rare,” he said. “But too many can hurt the whole canine industry.”
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org