By David S. Fallis and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 30, 2001
As a police officer chased a fleeing suspect in Brandywine 16 months ago, a large dog bolted out of the early morning darkness and tore into his legs, clamping down with such ferocity that he suffered permanently disabling injuries.
The officer and the animal had something in common: Both worked for the Prince George's County Police Department. The mistaken attack by the out-of-control police dog sent Cpl. Stephen Piazza to the hospital with lacerations and puncture wounds, according to records filed in a disability claim.
Since 1990, police dogs trained to apprehend suspects in Prince George's have instead attacked and mauled police officers, canine handlers and other law enforcement agents at least 43 times, according to public records and other documents.
In one case, an FBI agent was forced to shoot a police dog that attacked him during a standoff with a gunman. One corporal suffered bite wounds to the arm and stomach -- and then was bitten on the face two months later. A German shepherd named King attacked its police handler three times and sent as many as 40 other people to the hospital during its career.
Experts said it is rare for well-trained police dogs to attack the wrong people. Several police departments with canine squads similar in size to the Prince George's unit reported few -- if any -- cases of dogs biting officers.
Savannah, Ga., Police Chief Dan Flynn, former supervisor of the canine unit with the Miami-Dade Police Department, could recall only a handful of attacks by the dogs on police.
"That would be enormously high," Flynn said of the number of bites in Prince George's. "We never got up to those kind of numbers."
Although the attacks on law officers by police dogs have not been previously disclosed, the unusual frequency with which Prince George's dogs have mauled civilians has been well established.
The U.S. Department of Justice began investigating the county canine squad more than two years ago after numerous complaints and lawsuits by people who had been bitten by county police dogs.
The investigation was begun in 1999, as The Washington Post published internal police records revealing that dogs handled by eight canine squad members had bitten 60 civilians in an 11-month period in 1998.
Court records and interviews indicated that police canine officers sometimes allowed their dogs to attack whomever they encountered and at times ordered them to bite suspects who had been handcuffed or otherwise subdued.
Since then, police officials have announced a variety of changes to the unit, but despite the promised changes, there are indications that the county's canine corps remains troubled.
According to federal and state court records, Prince George's has settled 17 excessive-force lawsuits against its canine unit in the past four years -- including four settlements since August. In 14 of the cases, county lawyers required the plaintiffs to sign out-of-court agreements promising to keep the financial terms secret.
Since 1999, juries also have awarded $4.2 million in damages to two people who said they were maimed by police dogs and beaten by their handlers.
Seven lawsuits against the canine unit are pending in federal and state courts, including four filed last month.
In a brief interview, Police Chief John S. Farrell praised the performance of the canine squad and said he was unaware of any problems with police dogs attacking officers.
"There's no pattern of any kind of injuries like that that have come to my attention," he said.
Police officials, however, have refused to disclose basic information about the squad, such as how many civilians have been bitten by police dogs or details of the attacks.
They did not respond to a written list of questions about the canine unit. Lt. Michael Butler, commander of the unit, also did not respond to a written request for an interview.
Without police cooperation, it's difficult to learn the circumstances of cases in which police dogs attacked officers.
But basic details of many attacks were found in the files of the Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission, the state agency that determines how employees should be reimbursed for injuries sustained on the job.
Since 1990, police officers have filed 36 workers' compensation claims after they were bitten by Prince George's police dogs, accounting for almost one-third of all dog-bite claims filed by Maryland law enforcement officers, records show.
Court records document at least seven other incidents in which Prince George's officers were bitten by police dogs but did not file for workers' compensation.
A few of the attacks in Prince George's occurred in training classes for the dogs and handlers, but records show most of the accidental bites happened while police were on patrol. In almost all cases, officers sought emergency medical treatment.
Excluding medical bills and legal fees, the commission ordered Prince George's to pay more than $114,000 in disability claims to the officers, the records show.
Nationally, no one tracks the number or nature of bites by police dogs.
But a survey of nine police departments with large canine units found that the agencies reported few, if any, bites of officers by their dogs in recent years. Miami-Dade, Dallas, Baltimore and Philadelphia, for example, reported none in the past two years.
Experts in the field said it is rare for police dogs to bite officers but not unheard of.
"If you are a K-9 officer long enough, sooner or later you are probably going to be bit by a dog," said Sgt. Lee Marsh, who has filed injury claims for bites twice during his 16 years with the Montgomery County Police Department's canine squad.
Dogs generally can't distinguish between a person in uniform and a suspect, the experts said, adding that it is up to the handler to control the animal.
Lt. Patrick Maxwell, who oversees the canine unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said he could recall only one attack of an officer on patrol in the past 10 years.
In Fairfax County, police canine handlers said they could not remember the last time an officer was bitten by one of their dogs, said Lt. Amy Lubas.
"It is extremely rare," Lubas said.
In the District, Lt. Jeffrey D. Herold, who runs the canine unit, also said bites to officers were infrequent. They typically occur in training, he said.
"We realize the use of a canine is the use of force," Herold said. "We will drop a dog in a second if the dog is not 100 percent obeying what the handler wants them to do."
And a pattern of repeated, serious bites to officers, especially those on patrol, may suggest a lack of proper training, experts said.
"If a department has continual problems with personnel being bitten, there is something operational or trainingwise that needs to be addressed," said Russ Hess, executive director of the U.S. Police Canine Association. "In most cases, it's probably not the dog's fault."
A Wound With 16 Staples In November 1997, David Fowler Jr., then an officer in the tiny Forest Heights Police Department, was searching a house with a Prince George's police canine unit. As a Prince George's dog handler attempted to restrain his animal, the dog broke free, lunging at Fowler.
"I was the closest thing to him," explained Fowler, who said the dog instinctively locked onto his left leg. The handler yelled at the dog to let go.
"Once I put my gun to the dog's head, he released," said Fowler.
Doctors closed his leg wound with 16 staples, he said.
In August 1998, a county police dog lunged at Cpl. Delvon Montue as he tried to pull the animal out of his cruiser in Riverdale, ripping its teeth into Montue's right arm, left hand and stomach.
Two months later, a police dog bit Montue again -- this time in the face.
Cpl. Stephanie C. Mohr, who was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison this month for unleashing her police dog on an unarmed homeless man, filed a claim after she was bitten by a police canine in March 1996 during a training exercise.
According to testimony during Mohr's federal trial last summer, she was involved in another training incident in which her dog attacked a fellow officer. In the past two years, county government lawyers have settled three excessive-force lawsuits in which she was accused of allowing her dog to bite unarmed people.
In May 1999, a few weeks after the FBI said it would investigate the Prince George's canine corps, county police leaders said they would retrain the entire unit. The announcement also was prompted by a report in The Post that 13 excessive-force lawsuits were pending against officers in the canine squad.
Specifically, police said all dogs would be coached to bark to keep criminals at bay, instead of automatically biting them -- a technique known as "guard and bark." Police also said they would no longer send dogs into buildings to chase people suspected of petty crimes.
"The program seems to be going very well," Farrell said. "I don't hear any complaints. It's a vastly different program than when I got here."
But records show that long after the reforms were announced, many Prince George's police dogs were biting instead of barking.
In October 2000, one canine officer, Cpl. Rosa M. Guixens, testified in a sworn deposition that several police dogs still were using the old approach, known as "find-and-bite."
About the same time, police officials acknowledged that fewer than half of the dogs on the canine squad were trained to guard and bark and said it would take until July 2001 to phase in the new system. Police declined to answer questions about whether they met their deadline.
Police-canine experts said the "guard-and-bark" approach favored by Prince George's is not fail-safe and does not preclude a dog from biting. Indeed, the revised Prince George's canine policy still calls for dogs to bite suspects who flee or pose a threat to bystanders or officers.
"In my estimation, you are leaving that decision to bite up to the dog," said Miami-Dade Lt. Wayne Seme, who has been with the canine unit there since 1978 and dislikes the guard-and-bark approach. He said the best way to prevent unnecessary bites is to keep dogs leashed and ensure that a search area is clear of innocent bystanders and police before turning them loose.
"If the dog is on the lead, the handler is making the decision. And I train the handlers that nobody gets bit," Seme said.
Hess, of the police canine association, questioned whether dogs trained to bark first are any less likely to bite in the end. He said most people cornered by a growling police dog will try to flee, prompting the animal to attack.
"Do you know anybody that is going to stand there and let a 100-pound German shepherd bark at their groin?" Hess said. "The end results are the same -- both dogs bite."
Jim Watson, national secretary of the North American Police Work Dog Association, was skeptical that police dogs could be retrained once they had worked for three or more years as biting dogs.
"It becomes extremely confusing to the dog," he said.
100 People Bitten a Year Since the reforms were promised, Prince George's dogs have continued to bite -- attacking police officers and bystanders.
Cpl. David Favors reported to the workers' compensation commission that his left arm was disfigured by his police dog Aug. 15, 2000, the second time his animal had bitten him.
"That was my own dog. Those were work-related accident bites," Favors said, declining to comment further.
That month, police dogs attacked two other officers in separate incidents.
This year, two officers have reported bites to the commission. Officer Alix Braunstein was bitten in Laurel on Feb. 23. Cpl. Michael Zan, a canine handler who is a defendant in two pending dog-bite lawsuits, was attacked by his dog April 24.
Police officials would not say how many dogs are in its canine squad. But other records indicate that there are at least 10 patrol dogs -- male German shepherds or similar breeds typically weighing 80 to 90 pounds.
The dogs are prized for their sense of smell, which enables them to quickly locate people in hiding, and their willingness to chase dangerous criminals.
Police like to use them to search buildings so that officers can avoid being ambushed. (The agency has three other dogs that are used solely to sniff for drugs and explosives.)
The canines have incredible jaw strength: up to 1,500 pounds of pressure per square inch. When they bite a person, they can break small bones, tear out chunks of flesh and inflict as much damage as a gunshot wound.
Although Prince George's police officials refused to disclose how often their dogs bite civilians, newly available court records indicate that they have bitten more than 100 people a year.
From 1987 to 1998, county police dogs bit more than 1,200 people, according to internal police documents submitted as part of a lawsuit against the canine squad. The total is probably greater because the documents omitted many months' worth of data.
The numbers in Prince George's are exponentially higher than those reported by other police agencies with canine squads of similar size.
Last year, for instance, District police officials recorded 16 dog bites. Miami-Dade police said their dogs bit a dozen people.
Fairfax County police reported three dog bites. Baltimore police recorded two.
'Tasting Blood and Flesh' The problem of police dogs attacking officers in Prince George's has persisted for years.
In 1993, Officer Gregory O. Chandler was tracking a robbery suspect near Forestville when a police dog named Castro charged him from about 50 yards away and clamped down on his right arm.
"You could tell its adrenaline was really flowing -- this dog was tasting blood and flesh," said Chandler, who resigned after the attack but still bears dark scars on his arm. "I was hollering for someone to shoot the dog, but [the handler] kept saying, 'No, no!' "
Court records show that the same dog had bitten another officer several months before.
Some Prince George's canine handlers have had repeated trouble protecting themselves from their dogs, let alone other people.
During his seven years on the canine squad, Cpl. Anthony M. Mileo was bitten three times by King, his German shepherd, records show.
On April 14, 1994, Mileo was trying to break up an unruly crowd in Forestville when King got confused and clamped his jaws on the officer's right thigh. Less than two weeks later, while pursuing an armed robbery suspect, King bit Mileo again -- in the exact same spot on his leg. The 90-pound dog also bit him on his left forearm in 1992.
Mileo testified in a deposition in June 1998 that King had bitten "30 to 40" suspects in the preceding five years -- including about 15 people who required prolonged hospital stays.
Mileo and the county were sued in three of those cases, according to court records. County government lawyers settled two of the lawsuits for an undisclosed sum. In the third case, a jury awarded a Capitol Heights man $135,000 in February 2000 after Mileo's dog tore up the man's legs and sent him to the hospital for a month.
Mileo did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment. He left the canine squad in 1999 and is now a patrol officer.
Valor Award in Mauling Another dog with a history of biting the wrong people: a German shepherd named Moe.
On April 26, 1995, Cpl. Todd A. Landers and a posse of officers were searching for a slaying suspect in Palmer Park when they spotted a pedestrian they wanted to question. Landers ordered the man to stop and lie on the ground, or else he'd unleash Moe.
The man, Rayford N. Hamlett Jr., obeyed the command but suffered the consequences anyway -- the dog "bit, clawed and mauled" him on his right shoulder, arms and back while he lay facedown on the pavement, according to a lawsuit he filed against Landers and the county.
It turned out that Hamlett was not the person police were looking for, just an innocent bystander. The county settled his lawsuit under terms that remain confidential. Landers did not return phone calls seeking comment.
One month after Hamlett was bitten, a team of FBI agents and Prince George's police officers surrounded a gunman at a shopping center in Greenbelt. Two FBI agents traded fire with the fugitive and ducked for cover when, suddenly, a furry blur of gnashing teeth rushed them head-on.
It was Moe. Landers had released the dog to apprehend the gunman, but the beast attacked FBI agents David C. Raymond and Edward Ryan instead, biting Raymond on the hand and leg.
"I kicked the dog and [we] yelled for the handler to call off his dog, but there was no response," Raymond said in a written statement given to police. "The dog charged at me again. Ryan fired twice at the dog and I fired once. The dog was hit and retreated."
By the time the bullets stopped flying, the gunman was dead and the dog had bitten another Prince George's officer.
If police officials were concerned by the canine-inflicted carnage that day, they didn't show it.
Indeed, at an awards ceremony a year later, the police brass told a different story about what happened during the shootout.
During the ceremony, police credited Landers and his dog with responsibility for the gunman's demise, noting that Moe heroically took a bullet in the chest. Who shot the dog -- and why -- was left unmentioned.
"The unparalleled courage of Corporal Landers and his partner Moe . . . matched with their excellent survival skills, had a direct impact on the removal of a violent felon from the community," the award certificate read.
Moe and Landers were bestowed with the Gold Medal of Valor, the police department's highest honor. They also shared the title of police officer of the year.