FBI Investigating Pr. George's Canine Unit
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 1999; Page A1
Asleep in her own bed, napping in the early afternoon after working a late-night shift, Esther Vathekan was jolted awake by "pain in my head, something lifting my head and shaking it."
A German shepherd nearly as big as the 96-pound Vathekan, was tearing away at the back of her scalp. Suddenly the dog released its powerful grip, stepped around and chomped into her head, its teeth tearing into flesh above and below Vathekan's right eye. She heard the bones cracking in her face. "That's when I thought I was going to die," said Vathekan, 50.
The dog was a Prince George's County police dog, sent into a rented basement apartment in Vathekan's Takoma Park home to look for a possible burglar. Police say the dog used its teeth to turn the doorknob of the first-floor door and then bounded into Vathekan's bedroom.
Prince George's dogs are trained to bite, in sharp contrast to some other police departments that train their dogs to bark and hold a suspect until police arrive. And unlike most other departments, Prince George's police say they keep virtually no records of dog bites or their severity.
But internal police records turned over in a lawsuit show that dogs handled by the eight members of one canine squad bit 60 people between January and November 1998. In Montgomery County, by contrast, dogs handled by 13 officers bit people half as often – 30 times – in 1998.
According to 18 lawsuits, Prince George's County police sometimes let dogs loose to attack whomever they encounter and, at other times, order them to bite suspects already subdued or handcuffed. In 10 of the 18 lawsuits, victims contend they were attacked even though they were not resisting arrest, were on the ground or were handcuffed. In four incidents, according to the lawsuits, officers ordered their dogs to bite the victims after they were already subdued.
The people who have filed suit represent a cross section of the county's population: men, women, teenagers, blacks, whites and, in Vathekan's case, Indian. And the attacks occurred throughout the county: Forest Heights, Laurel, Lanham, Capitol Heights, even on the Capital Beltway. One took place in the District.
Some were attacked by Prince George's dogs after they tried to run to escape arrest, and a few have criminal records. Others have no criminal records and, like Vathekan, were not breaking the law when they were attacked by police dogs.
All of the officers involved in the suits are represented by county attorneys who have directed them not to discuss the cases.
Last week, a month after The Washington Post began reviewing police dog bite cases involving Prince George's County officers, the FBI began investigating whether the 23 officers of the county police department's canine unit engage in a pattern of using excessive force, FBI Special Agent Peter A. Gulotta Jr., a spokesman for the bureau's Baltimore field office, confirmed.
Gulotta declined to say what prompted the investigation. He said the FBI's findings will be turned over to U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia in Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Justice.
According to court records, not one complaint of excessive force against the Prince George's canine unit has been sustained this decade.
Prince George's Police Chief John S. Farrell, who has made reducing excessive force by his officers a hallmark of his tenure as chief, refused to be interviewed for this story, citing the advice of a county attorney. All but two of the 13 lawsuits pending in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt and Prince George's County Circuit Court involve incidents that occurred while Farrell has been chief.
County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) said in an interview that he is not familiar with the specific allegations in the lawsuits.
But he said Farrell that has been successful in reducing complaints of excessive force against the department and that he has "utter confidence" that if the canine unit had an excessive force problem, Farrell would detect and remedy it.
"Our complaints [of excessive force] have declined dramatically; they're at record lows," Curry said. "That some people who are bitten by [police] dogs would file lawsuits is not surprising."
Advocates for the use of police dogs say they are effective for crowd control, building searches, narcotics detection and apprehension of fleeing suspects.
Prince George's police dogs are trained to "use the right arm as the primary target; however secondary target areas are other parts of the body which present themselves should the right arm not be available," according to a written reply to questions from The Post by police spokesman Royce D. Holloway. Police have refused to be interviewed about the canine corps.
But few of the lawsuits mention injuries to the right arm, citing instead injuries to nearly every other part of the body.
Attorneys for the dog bite victims charge that the continuing use of dogs as weapons by Prince George's officers stems primarily from the police department's failure to hold officers accountable for unnecessary and excessive dog attacks.
"It's a question of having the dogs bite when they don't have to," said Riverdale lawyer Terrell N. Roberts III, who represents Vathekan and three other people suing the police department over canine bites.
Three of the county's officers have been named in a total of eight suits. Five of those suits are pending, two have been settled and the department lost the other case in federal court in Greenbelt.
The police dogs, primarily German shepherds, are purchased from Germany and the former Czechoslovakia because of their breeding and superior physical attributes. The dogs have powerful jaws that can exert between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds of pressure per square inch and, when they bite, often leave gaping wounds, lingering pain, permanent scars, huge gaps where flesh has been ripped out, limps, nerve damage and tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills. Vathekan, for instance, has more than $60,000 in medical bills.
Experts on the use of dogs in police work say that the way a dog reacts on the job can be traced to two factors: the dog's training and the way the dog is handled by its commanding officer. In Prince George's, critics say, both are flawed.
One of the two basic methods of training is to teach the dogs to find someone and hold them at bay by barking loudly until officers arrive. The other way is to train dogs to bite and hold. County officers use the latter method.
The experts, who said they did not know about the specifics of Prince George's County dogs and training, said that in general the officer/handlers are responsible for cases of unnecessary and excessive biting, not the dogs themselves.
"The dog's doing what he's trained to do," said Richard Rogers of the U.S. Police Canine Association.
"A really good handler with good control can turn his dog loose on somebody and call the dog off before it bites somebody," said Herbert Mullican Jr., a former military dog trainer and author of a model police canine policy for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
"I've done exercises like that," Mullican said. "The whole thing is a matter of training – it's control, control, control. There's no second-guessing involved; you know what that dog's going to do."
The IACP's guidelines also recommend detailed record-keeping of biting incidents, including photographs of the injuries inflicted. In contrast, Prince George's County officials said they keep virtually no records of police dog bites.
But canine units in neighboring police departments do keep detailed records of bites, record far fewer bites and are accused much less frequently of excessive force.
The 30 bites recorded in Montgomery County in 1998 occurred in the course of 183 apprehensions in which the dogs assisted, said Montgomery police Sgt. Lee Marsh. In 1997, the unit's dogs committed 34 bites in 202 apprehensions.
Marsh said Montgomery County police write three reports whenever one of their dogs bites someone: a report detailing how the bite or bites occurred and the injuries sustained, an apprehension form and a use-of-force form. Montgomery police also take photographs of bite wounds.
The documentation concerning bites is kept as long as the dogs are on the force, sometimes longer, Marsh said.
In the 14 years he has been in the canine unit, two civil suits involving dog bites have gone to trial in Montgomery County, Marsh said. About a half-dozen complaints of excessive force were investigated by the department's internal affairs unit during that time, Marsh said.
"If there were multiple complaints about the same team that resulted in internal affairs complaints or civil suits, it's something we would look at," Marsh said.
In the decade that the D.C. police department has faced more than 750 civil lawsuits alleging excessive force, a search of court records turned up only seven lawsuits against D.C. police canine officers.
The biting incidents detailed in lawsuits against Prince George's police represent just a small fraction of all serious bites committed by county police dogs, according to criminal defense lawyers and a private investigator who has interviewed dozens of people bitten by police dogs.
Christopher Griffiths, a defense lawyer with the Riverdale firm of Roberts & Wood, which is representing four people suing for county police dog bites, said as many as three dozen of the criminal defendants he deals with annually have been bitten by county police dogs.
Private investigator Sharon Weidenfeld said that last year after she interviewed a man in the Prince George's County detention center who had been bitten by a police dog, and asked him to refer anyone else who had been bitten by a police canine, she received four phone calls the next day from inmates who said they had been bitten.
Some lawyers said they see cases involving dog bites in which it was clear the victim was brutalized by a police dog, but they think it would be futile to file suit.
"Because most of them were suspected of committing a crime, it would be difficult to win [a civil excessive force] case in front of a jury," Griffiths said.
In February, an eight-person jury in U.S. District Court in Baltimore deadlocked on a civil case brought by Bowie teenager Julie Anne Brown against Prince George's County police and Cpl. David Favors, whose police dog bit Brown 33 times on July 31, 1997.
According to court records and testimony at the civil trial, Brown, who was 17 at the time, went into Robert Goddard Middle School in Lanham with two other teenagers after 2 a.m. on a warm summer night, setting off motion alarms.
Brown testified that she bought a soda from a machine and used the restroom. Soon the three teenagers saw police cars coming toward the school. One fled through an open window.
Brown and Lacey Knauer, now 17 and an honor student at DuVal High School in Lanham, sat on the floor and hid behind a desk, the two teenagers testified during the week-long trial.
They heard Favors's dog, Rony, running through the hallway unleashed, and at one point, Rony ran into the room they were in and then left. Minutes later, the dog sprinted in and bit Knauer on the leg, the girls testified.
After a few moments, according to testimony, the dog let go of Knauer and started biting Brown repeatedly.
"I was scared to death. I thought it was going to rip me apart," Brown testified. Both girls testified that Brown tried to cover her face but did not run or fight the dog and that Favors said, "Good dog, get her."
Favors told the jury that Brown tried to run away and kicked Rony. A second officer who joined Favors, John Willie Ivey Jr., testified that he did not see Brown try to run. The jury deadlocked six to two in favor of the department.
Others have suffered worse injuries from county police dogs.
Julius LaRosa Booker, 34, is missing huge chunks from his right calf, where a police dog handled by Cpl. Anthony Mileo tore into him on the night of Oct. 21, 1997. Booker, of Capitol Heights, spent three weeks in Prince George's Hospital Center after he was bitten. He now walks with a pronounced limp, and he says he can't stand for long before his right leg becomes swollen and painful.
His 4-year-old girl, Tanisha, is afraid to sit on his lap. "She asks me if it hurts," Booker said.
Robert M. Wilburn, of Temple Hills, was driving on the Beltway when he was pulled over by county officers after police were told that he had fired shots at a tow truck driver. He was quickly handcuffed and put on the ground face-down, according to a lawsuit filed in Prince George's County Circuit Court. A county police dog then mauled Wilburn's leg as two officers allegedly held him down. Police found no weapon, and Wilburn was not charged.
In response to written questions submitted by The Post, John A. Bielec, associate county attorney, said that the dog "escaped from the police cruiser and bit Mr. Wilburn by accident."
Wilburn spent 10 days in Prince George's Hospital Center and had surgery on his leg, which became infected, necessitating a second, four-day stay.
Now, six months after the attack, he goes to Georgetown University Hospital two days a week for painful physical therapy to strengthen his nerve-damaged leg.
Esther Vathekan was hospitalized for a week and had four surgeries after she was attacked by Castro, the dog commanded by Officer Jeffrey J. Simms.
Today, Vathekan lives in the same house where she was attacked. She says the slightest pressure – simply splashing water on her face – sends waves of pain through the right side of her head. At other times, the area is numb. But almost constantly, there is a trickle from her right eye because of blocked tear ducts; at night the tears crust on her cheek.
And the doorknob that police say Castro opened to get to her? She replaced it with a deadbolt.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company