SEATTLE — Law enforcement agencies have paid nearly $1 million in damages from police dogs wrongly attacking people in the past five years.
In that time span, 17 people claimed they were wrongly attacked by police dogs in western Washington, The Seattle Times reported Sunday. A newspaper analysis of more than 100 cities found that such incidents happen several times a year in the state.
In many cases, individual dogs are responsible for several attacks — an issue that experts say is a warning that the animal and the 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.
But even after multiple wrongful attacks, many K-9s remain on duty.
A Pierce County sheriff’s dog, Cliff, has been named in three claims that have cost the county $247,000. That 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 claim after he bit a passenger in a car that police had been chasing in September 2008. In that same incident, another police dog named Vasko attacked Puyallup resident Mark Roberts, who had stepped outside his home after he heard helicopters scouring the area.
“I caught something moving out of the corner of my eye,” recalled Roberts, 58, of the split second before he was “flattened” by Vasko.
“The pain was something indescribable,” Roberts added.
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 wrongful attacks are tied to training.
Most dogs in the U.S. 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 decision to utilize a K-9 team for a wanted-felon search is not made lightly.”