I’ve written before about the important role that canines play in policing, as well as the need to protect them from harm to the maximum extent possible. I definitely believe these dogs are valuable tools when used with proper training and under the appropriate guidance of a responsible human partner.
Image courtesy of Maggie Smith/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net
But, a pair of stories in recent weeks raises some concerns about use of force when it comes to canines.
First up, a jury in Atlantic City recently awarded damages to a man assaulted by a police officer during an encounter in 2008. The officer involved in that incident, Sterling Wheaten, was held personally liable and ordered to pay half of the $500,000 damage award himself.
As it turns out, that same officer is also being sued in at least five other cases, including one in which he allowed his canine to severely bite a man in June of this year. The video of that incident is below, and it offers a gritty view of what appears to be abusive police behavior by Wheaten.
Watch for yourself.
Atlantic City Incident
The video (starting at 3:10) appears to show a man being subdued by four Atlantic City officers, who eventually wrestle him to the ground to take him into custody. Just as he appears to be coming under control, Wheaten pulls up and releases his canine, which is then allowed to mercilessly attack the man, even biting his neck at one point.
You can see in the video how the officers, who are already on top of the arrested man, have to literally move out of the way to avoid being bitten by the dog themselves.
The man, Connor Castellani, required 200 stitches as a result of the dog attack, which appeared, in my opinion at least, to have been a completely disproportionate police response to the situation. That will ultimately be up to a jury to determine, however.
And, before you think that the decision might be a slam dunk based on the video, juries have sided with canine officers in similar cases in the past, even in situations in which video footage appears to show excessive force being used.
In December 2013, Stafford Brister, an officer with the Wilmington Police Department in North Carolina, was cleared by a grand jury in a use of force case involving the officer and his canine partner.
The below video of the incident shows officer Brister lifting his canine into a suspect’s vehicle after a police chase. If you look closely, you can see that the man appears to have submitted at that point by raising his hands in the air.
Nevertheless, the canine can be seen attacking the man.
Now, I’m no apologist for fleeing suspects, and I don’t condone drinking and driving, damaging property, or any of the other crimes this suspect was later charged with committing, but I do believe that shoving the dog into the car after the suspect had stopped and apparently given up was potentially an excessive use of force.
To my mind, it would be akin to one police officer helping another officer enter the car for the sole purpose of attacking someone. Once inside the car, the dog is under only tenuous control, at best, and it certainly doesn’t have the reasoning capabilities of a human officer in terms of stopping or reducing the attack at any point where maximum force is no longer required.
If the video showed a human officer being hoisted through the window and then viciously attacking the suspect, I think we’d all agree that would be excessive. So, I’m not seeing how doing the same with a canine partner is any different in this situation.
The District Attorney also felt it was a close enough call to get a grand jury involved, and they ultimately decided that excessive force was not used.
Grand jury proceedings are secret, so we will likely never know what information they received or the exact reasoning behind their decision. But, we can look to some other sources to potentially help with understanding canines and use of force.
According to the U.S. Police Canine Association, use of police canines is subject to the same three-part test as other use of force situations. Officers must consider:
- The severity of the crime at issue;
- Whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of law enforcement officers or others;
- And whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.
Also, according to the same Supreme Court decision that generated the above test, Graham v. Connor (PDF), the court had this to say about use of force during arrest:
The Fourth Amendment “reasonableness” inquiry is whether the officers’ actions are “objectively reasonable” in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. The “reasonableness” of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.
In the Wilmington case, the behavior involved was potentially a felony, the suspect had allegedly posed a significant threat to officers (he was driving recklessly and dangerously), and he had reportedly been resisting arrest in the moments prior to the encounter with the dog. All of that may have been influential in the grand jury’s decision not to indict Brister.
Further, it’s important to note that the Supreme Court, in applying the reasonable officer standard, made the point that use of force decisions must be evaluated from the perspective of an officer at the scene, not someone able to calmly judge it after the fact by watching a video of the incident, for example.
In the Atlantic City case, on the other hand, Castellani was suspected of only misdemeanor behavior, appeared to pose only a minimal threat to officers (especially since there were four officers present initially), and he was no longer resisting at the point Wheaten arrived and released his dog.
I don’t think any reasonable officer at the scene would have concluded that it was reasonable or necessary for Wheaten to use his canine to attack and bite Castellani the way he did.
But, maybe I’m wrong. What are your thoughts?
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