Police K-9s are meant to stop dangerous felons. They’re more often unleashed on Black people accused of stealing

The South Florida Sun Sentinel examined 17 months of K-9 bites at Broward’s…

Police K-9s are meant to stop dangerous felons. They're more often unleashed on Black people accused of stealing 1

Police K-9s are meant to stop dangerous felons. They're more often unleashed on Black people accused of stealing 2

Police K-9s are meant to stop dangerous felons. They're more often unleashed on Black people accused of stealing 3

Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — Pavon Davis cowered behind a fallen pine tree, his heart racing. The sharp teeth of a trained police dog drew nearer.

Davis, 18, and his friends had jumped a fence and entered Flanagan High School to play manhunt. Now a helicopter hovered overhead, guiding Pembroke Pines Police Officer Mark Farah and K-9 Rory to Davis’ hiding spot.

The dog bit without warning, body camera footage shows. As the Belgian Malinois tore into Davis’ leg, Officer Farah yelled “Get on the ground!” to Davis — who was already lying on his back, his hands raised in surrender. “I’m down!” the teen repeatedly shouted.

Like most people bitten by police dogs in Broward County, Davis was unarmed, accused of a nonviolent crime, and Black.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel examined 17 months of K-9 bites at Broward’s largest police agencies and found that 84% of people bitten were Black. Though racial disparities in criminal justice are common, the high percentage of Black people bitten by police dogs in Broward stands out. It eclipses the percentage of Black residents in the local population, and far exceeds the percentage of Black arrestees here.

Black children are commonly bitten. The Sun Sentinel found that nearly 1 in 5 people bitten were 17 or younger, despite policies that discourage police officers from unleashing K-9s on children. In Hollywood, that statistic was especially striking: almost half the people bitten were juveniles.

Inequalities in policing face renewed scrutiny following the videotaped murder of George Floyd beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. And police departments in Salt Lake City, New Orleans and elsewhere in the country are retiring their dogs or training them to find and bark instead of bite.

But in Broward, law enforcement leaders defend their K-9 practices and point to complex societal factors to explain the overrepresentation of Black people in their K-9 bite files. Advocates say those factors are precisely why police should stop unleashing K-9s on people — most often people of color — suspected of nonviolent property crimes.

The problem is compounded by a lack of transparency. Three of the six agencies examined by the Sun Sentinel — Fort Lauderdale, Miramar, and Pembroke Pines — don’t track their K-9 use by race. Not all K-9 officers in Broward wear body cameras, and some of those who do have turned them off or forgotten to activate them without consequence. That happened three times with Fort Lauderdale police officers, the Sun Sentinel found.

Police say race plays no role in who gets chased, and the only suspects who get bitten are those who don’t obey police orders.

“We don’t have control of who runs, who doesn’t run,” said Sgt. Jeff Heinrich, leader of the K-9 unit at the Coral Springs Police Department.

Of the 60 K-9 cops at the agencies reviewed, only one was Black.

Davis, who works cutting hair and selling T-shirts, had no criminal record at the time of his dog bite. He was left with $1,000 in medical bills from the stitches. Charges of trespassing and resisting police without violence were dropped when he completed a diversionary program and paid $2,000 in fines and fees.

Davis said the decision to run from the police was instinctive: “We instantly ran.” Some of his friends escaped by jumping into a canal.

“I don’t think they should have used dogs,” said Davis, now 19. “Yeah, we were trespassing, but we didn’t come to … do anything bad.”

Nearly two years after the bite, the area below his knee where the teeth sank in is still numb.

Mutual fear and distrust

The Sun Sentinel reviewed K-9 records from the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the county’s five largest police departments: Coral Springs, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Miramar and Pembroke Pines. Reporters examined thousands of pages of police K-9 reports and court documents, hours of body camera footage and scores of bite wound photos.

Each agency noted that it met the industry norms for using police dogs: The number of people bitten was far less than 30% of the total cases in which dogs were used.

But the Sun Sentinel found that each agency also displayed a similar pattern of racial disparity, chasing and biting Black people in numbers out of proportion to their share of population or arrests. In 73% of the cases in which dogs hunted suspects, the suspects were Black, fueling the disproportionate bite rate among Black people.

The dogs are indispensable for finding and capturing dangerous criminals. Yet two-thirds of the people bitten were accused of nonviolent crimes. The typical K-9 case: a young Black man driving a stolen car or accused of stealing from a parked one.

Anthony Rattray, 19, was accused of stealing from unlocked cars in a Coral Springs neighborhood. Coral Springs police used a dog and a drone to find him hiding in a trash can. Officer Scott Clark said he shouted a warning and knocked the can over. He said the 19-year-old hesitated to emerge and could have been armed, so he ordered his K-9 to bite. The dog ripped a four-inch chunk out of Rattray’s upper arm, hospitalizing him for two days.

In Rattray’s pockets, police found a $1 bill, a necklace, a stone ring, and a pack of fake eyelashes. Long before his day in court, Rattray paid a bloody price.

Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony said it’s unfair to blame law enforcement officers “who are doing this very risky task.” He said serious crimes tend to occur in communities with socio-economic struggles, where people might not have access to proper housing or education. If deputies go where the crime is, and crime is more concentrated in some struggling communities of color, then it stands to reason that deputies would encounter more Black suspects with their K-9s, he said.

“What about all the other variables that impact crime patterns and trends?” Tony asked. “There is a heck of a lot more that has to take place and it’s not just law enforcement.”

Sgt. Emmanuel Koutsofios, who leads BSO’s K-9 patrol unit, and Sgt. Paul Cristafaro, leader of Fort Lauderdale Police K-9s, said dogs are the best de-escalator police have because most suspects surrender in fear.

At the same time, some of the people bitten by dogs told the Sun Sentinel that fear of the police is what made them run. And, like their dogs, the police are trained to chase those who run.

But experts say Black suspects have rational reasons to flee, and it shouldn’t be chalked up as an admission of guilt.

“Running doesn’t always denote guilt,” said Dr. Andrea Boyles, a sociologist at Tulane University who studies police. “That (running) is about distrust and that is about a longs-tanding history, that is well known in the Black and brown community, of police misconduct.”

Many of the people bitten by Broward police dogs have lengthy criminal records, the Sun Sentinel found. Rattray had many encounters with law enforcement, including arrests for robbery, and had learned in his youth that even riding a bicycle improperly wouldn’t be overlooked. He got a ticket when he was 14 for riding his bike without lights in Margate, a second citation at 15 for carrying a passenger on his bicycle in Coral Springs, and a third at 15 for jaywalking in Coral Springs.

“There’s a certain fear,” said Broward Public Defender Gordon Weekes. “I’m a Black man, and to this day when I’m pulled over by law enforcement, I get a little nervous.”

That fear can cut both ways, experts said. Trailing a possibly armed suspect through unfamiliar, dark terrain is a dangerous, scary job. And if that suspect is Black, a subconscious fear could be at play, said Dr. Jason Williams, a sociologist who studies police violence.

“As an institution, police are far way more likely to fear — unfortunately — Black individuals compared to white individuals, so releasing [a dog] against the Blacks may come from that place,” said Williams, an assistant professor of Justice Studies at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Weekes said their use in modern day law enforcement cannot be separated from an ugly past, when dogs were used in America to hunt slaves or repress civil rights activists in defense of segregation.

To serve and protect … cars?

The nature of the crimes most often pursued by K-9 teams could bake in a bias against Black people.

Among the bite cases reviewed by the Sun Sentinel, the most common crime was stealing cars, or stealing from them. That could partly explain why so many bitten are Black.

In 2019, three-fourths of the people arrested for stealing cars or stealing from cars were Black, according to a Sun Sentinel analysis of Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime statistics for the six agencies.

BSO Deputy Tim Roberts, who helps train K-9 officers, said people who steal cars are more dangerous than one might think. “They don’t need a car to go to Bible study,” he said.

He called auto theft “a gateway crime,” with thieves using stolen cars for burglaries and drive-by shootings.

Sgt. Cristafaro said car burglars and thieves can be serious criminals who menace the community, including its Black residents.

The agencies did use K-9s on dangerous criminals. There are alleged murderers, home invaders, carjackers and domestic batterers who meet with dog bites.

One was Sedric Thomas, 42, wanted for breaking into a elderly couples’ home in Fort Lauderdale, knocking the 77-year-old woman to the ground, tying up the couple with duct tape and holding them at gunpoint for two hours.

Police spotted him driving a stolen car in Fort Lauderdale and went after him. Cristafaro said only the biting dog could prevent Thomas from escaping to run through the neighborhood and into someone else’s home.

“I’ll stand by it till the day I die,” Cristafaro said of the dog bite

But in the Broward dog bite records, the Sun Sentinel found far more nonviolent cases — cases like that of Jamil Jasmin, accused of stealing a bicycle.

In their reports, K-9 officers make little distinction among suspected felonies, treating someone who steals a bike from a porch the same as an armed carjacker who pistol whips the vehicle owners, labeling them “unsearched, fleeing felons” who can be attacked by dogs.

Jasmin, 26, was bit deeply in the armpit by a Fort Lauderdale police dog named Greif after he ran from officers who said he stole a locked Trek bicycle from a carport.

Officer Robert Morris said Jasmin ran from police through a Northwest Fort Lauderdale neighborhood, then took cover in an overgrown lot. Morris said it wouldn’t be safe for him to follow Jasmin there, because of its rocks, low hanging branches and “potentially dangerous plants” including “Spanish bayonets or other sharp, ridged plants of the Yucca genus.”

Morris and Greif eventually cornered Jasmin near a fence. He said Jasmin swung a branch and hit him in the arm, a claim Jasmin denies. Police K-9s are trained to defend their handlers, but only to bite when ordered to do so. Morris ordered Greif to attack.

There is no footage of the actual bite. As the body camera rolled afterward, Jasmin moaned in pain as blood trickled from his armpit.

“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,” he complained. “My arm, my arm. I can’t breathe. I need some water.”

Jasmin said he spent a week in the hospital, undergoing two surgeries. His arm and hand still feel numb at times, and tingle. He has bad dreams.

“It was a big, bad dog. I have dreams, pictures of it in my head sometimes,” he said.

All bites are good bites

Most police policies say dogs should only be used on felony suspects, and steer cops away from using K-9s to bite juveniles and mentally ill people except in the most violent felonies.

But on the streets of Broward County, police dogs are biting young and mentally ill people, and supervisors always say it’s fine, records show.

K-9 supervisors and internal affairs investigators said they found no issues with any of the 94 bites during the 17-month period reviewed by the Sun Sentinel, whether the dog bit a juvenile, a person who didn’t commit a crime, or someone who claimed they had their hands up in surrender.

Hollywood’s policy prohibits the use of K-9s “to apprehend known juveniles wanted for anything other than violent felonies.” Yet nine of the 21 people bitten by Hollywood dogs were minors, one as young as 14. All were suspected of riding in or operating stolen vehicles, or breaking into and stealing from unoccupied cars or businesses, crimes which are not violent felonies. None were armed. The 14-year-old was accused of jumping a fence at a car lot and messing with the security cameras.

In December 2019, Hollywood K-9 officer Jeremy Ownbey commanded his dog Pito to bite a young suspected car burglar who ran from a traffic stop on foot. The boy, whose name and age are withheld in reports, was hiding in a wooden box “with both hands married together underneath both straps of his multicolored book bag,” the police report says. Because the child refused to come out of the box, and because Ownbey could not see the boy’s hands, he commanded Pito to bite, his report says. There is no video of the incident because Hollywood Police don’t use body cameras.

Hollywood Police Spokeswoman Deanna Bettineschi said the policy refers to “known juveniles,” and police often don’t know the age of the person.

“There are instances when suspects conceal themselves and an age is not known until after they are in custody,” she said.

A mentally ill offender was quickly attacked by a BSO police dog as he walked down a Pompano Beach street one afternoon.

Kenneth Bernard Johnson, 31, had been diagnosed with mental illnesses, and had been found mentally incompetent to stand trial, according to court records. But when his mother accused him of stealing her friend’s car keys, deputies found he had active warrants for theft, and deemed him an “unsearched, fleeing felon” who was fair game for a biting dog to hunt.

Body camera video shows police hollering: “Get on the ground, get on the ground, you’re going to get bit!” immediately after they encounter Johnson walking along the street.

“What did I do? I didn’t do nothing!” Johnson responded. He kept walking, his empty hands visible.

“Sic ‘em, buddy!” the officer ordered K-9 Roscoe.

In November 2019, a judge found Johnson incompetent to stand trial on the charges.

In one out of five dog bites, the charges that justified the use of the K-9 were downgraded to misdemeanors or dropped entirely by the Broward State Attorney’s Office, the newspaper found. In one out of 10 cases, the person bitten wasn’t charged with any crime other than resisting the officer or dog.

One BSO detective who spoke up about what he thought was a bad bite said he was demoted.

BSO detective Jeffrey Kogan in 2013 mentioned to a Broward prosecutor that he’d seen Fort Lauderdale Officer Robert Morris unnecessarily sic his dog Greif on a Black man, Walter “Lil Walt” Hart.

His allegation was recounted in a Broward State Attorney’s Office memo: “You know,” he told an assistant state attorney, “they let the dog loose after we had him in custody.”

Prosecutors investigated and cleared Morris; they questioned Kogan’s testimony and whether he saw what he claimed he saw.

Kogan claimed BSO punished him for his disclosure by transferring him to road patrol in Pompano Beach. Kogan sued BSO for retaliating and the agency settled for $390,000.

‘Going off air to discuss tactics’

K-9 Officer Morris, his dog Greif, and Officer Corey Salah found accused robber and car thief Joshua Maurice Gipson hiding in the bed of a pickup truck. Morris wasn’t wearing a body cam. Salah turned his camera off before officers and the dog closed in on Gipson.

“Going off air to discuss tactics,” he advised.

The two other nearest officers didn’t have body cameras. Only the camera of Officer Kenneth Giles stayed on, and he was behind a fence, far from the action. His camera recorded the faint sound of a dog barking, men shouting, a helicopter circling overhead — and no visuals of the capture of Gipson. The written reports say Gipson fought the dog; it grasped his thigh, and Gipson leapt headfirst out of the truck bed, with the dog still attached to his leg.

Once the bite was over, nine minutes after he had turned his camera off, Salah began recording again.

“Sir! I’m bleeding bad,” Gipson can be heard telling officers. “I’m going to die. Sir! … Please, sir!”

In an age where police increasingly wear body cameras, Broward police agencies said there was no footage for most of the bites in the year and a half reviewed by the Sun Sentinel.

Hollywood does not use them. In Coral Springs, Pembroke Pines, Miramar and Fort Lauderdale, relatively few officers had cameras because the programs had just begun. Even now, there are more officers recording, but not every K-9 cop wears a camera.

BSO K-9 deputies all wear cameras, but the agency was slow to release footage requested by the Sun Sentinel. In one case, the agency cited a privacy exemption because police chased a suspect into someone’s fenced-in backyard in the dark.

The Sun Sentinel found three additional cases in which Fort Lauderdale police officers turned the body camera off — or forgot to turn it on — just before the bite. They explained:

•“Unbeknownst to me, the switch was inadvertently switched to the off position,” Officer Craig Sheehan wrote in a July 2019 report.

•Officer Eduardo Requejo said he didn’t turn on his camera “due to how fast” the capture occurred in a March 2019 arrest.

•Officer Morris said that “due to the quick pace” of unfolding arrest, “I forgot” to activate the camera in a September 2019 bite and arrest.

Their supervisor, Cristafaro, said the camera program was in its early stages at the time, and “there was a learning curve.” The agency set new policies, he said, and is better at capturing footage of all arrests now.

Call off the dogs

With a national reckoning over police power now well under way, some agencies are rethinking the use of dogs.

The state of Massachusetts last December limited the use of police dogs: officers need to attempt to defuse the situation first, and the use of the dog needs to be “proportionate” to the threat presented by the individual. Additionally, all uses of the dog must be reported to a statewide commission.

Florida has no such standards or statewide commission, though it does require officers to have more than 480 hours of training with the dog before certifying them.

In 2020, the attorney general of California, Xavier Becerra, now the secretary of U.S. Health and Human Services, called for an end to K-9 bites and a shift to “find and bark” or “circle and bark” techniques.

The Salt Lake City Police Department suspended its K-9 program in late 2020 after the Salt Lake Tribune published a video of one officer ordering his K-9 to bite a Black man who was on his knees and had his hands in the air.

The video triggered an audit by the department which found a “pattern of abuse,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune. After the review, the department decided to refer 18 of the 27 dog bites made during the past two years — 66% — to the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office for possible criminal prosecution of the officers who ordered them.

New Orleans suspended its K-9 unit in 2011 after the U.S. Justice Department found the dogs bit too many suspects, including those who surrendered. The unit was under federal supervision for years.

New Orleans K-9s now are rarely deployed to catch a criminal, and rarely are sent to bite anyone. The department no longer allows them to bite people suspected of property crimes, and doesn’t unleash them for hiding or fleeing suspects unless the suspect tries to attack the officer.

Currently, the strongest check against abuses of force involving K-9s may be the federal courts. That’s where Carlos Robinson, 31, is litigating his 2016 Fort Lauderdale mauling.

“I understand that right is right, and wrong is wrong, but that was definitely wrong,” he said of the dog bites that tore open his shoulder and neck.

Robinson was arrested late at night in a Walmart parking lot in Fort Lauderdale in 2016. There is no body camera footage. Robinson had stolen a Mercedes from a dealership and then ditched it after a high speed chase. He was hiding in bushes when he saw Fort Lauderdale Officer Eduardo Requejo searching for him with his dog Bero.

“I was scared,” Robinson said, “so I came out hands up. I was on my knees.” But then Robinson says Requejo uttered a word he could not understand. “And when he said that, I saw this dog transformed, like, he went crazy,” Robinson remembered.


That’s when the dog attacked.

Two days after bonding out of jail, Robinson said he went to the Fort Lauderdale Police Department to complain.

“I felt like I was trying to tell somebody’s friends about their friend’s wrongdoing,” Robinson told the Sun Sentinel.

Internal Affairs found that Requejo did nothing wrong.

Robinson eventually pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the theft of the car. Now he’s suing the Fort Lauderdale for using excessive force during his arrest.

The city has attempted to have his lawsuit dismissed, arguing that Robinson was actively resisting.

Since 2005, Fort Lauderdale has been sued seven times for using excessive force with its K-9s. The city has made five payouts totaling more than $110,000 to victims. All six agencies together have paid $1.1 million since 2005 settling claims resulting from their dog bites, according to a Sun Sentinel analysis.

“I know what happened to me was wrong,” Robinson said. “I wouldn’t want that happening to anybody.”

———

Sun Sentinel staff writers Mary Lou Cruz and Marc Freeman contributed to this report.

Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com

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