And this didn’t happen decades ago, it happened weeks ago. The video evidence reflected a gory episode of state violence through the jaws of a canine that conjures up a long history of such images. For centuries, Europeans and Euro-Americans used police dogs as a tool for racial terror and conquest. European colonists and “slave hunters” initiated the system of racist, interspecies violence too often reflected in modern K-9 units today.
The use of canines for racial violence began with Spanish colonization and the mastiffs — or “war dogs” — that accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in the mid-1490s. Spanish conquistadors used them to track or apprehend enemy combatants, including the Indigenous people living throughout the Americas. According to Bartolomé de las Casas, a Jesuit priest who criticized Spanish treatment of Indigenous people in the 1500s, “hounds” were trained to “tear apart the Indians like beasts.” The format of such killings was a ritualized “spectacle of death,” in which men, women and children were fed to dogs as communities were forced to observe the scene.
Conquistadors commissioned images of these spectacles, as displayed in Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s execution of Indigenous Panamanians in the early 16th century. In Cholula, Mexico, artists preserved visuals of dogs ritualistically slaughtering Indigenous leaders in a document called “Manuscrito del Aperreamiento,” translated as the “Manuscript of a Dogging.”
Though innovated by Spanish colonists, European attack dogs became ubiquitous throughout the Western hemisphere as chattel slavery expanded in North America, South America and the Caribbean. As people of African descent were forcibly transported to the expanding plantation economies of the Americas, canine violence took a decisively racialized turn by the 18th century. During this period, dogs were specifically trained to trail, attack, subdue and even kill enslaved people who resisted or ran away.
The “Cuban bloodhound,” which emerged as a distinct breed by the mid-1700s, was marketed by Cuban breeders as an animal that was not only ferocious in its ability to subdue enemies, but also one that could specifically target and attack its prey based upon its ability to “sense” their race. This dog was celebrated as a tool to inflict maximum damage against Black people who attempted to challenge their enslavement.
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Cuban bloodhounds were introduced to areas throughout the Caribbean. Enslavers used these dogs in increasing numbers to subvert and dismantle Black resistance in Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti and Florida. They also used them to apprehend and torture enslaved people who fled plantations.
At each place they landed, these dogs exhibited their ferocity through the tearing of Black flesh. In Haiti in 1803, when French generals feared losing to Haitian revolutionaries, they secured Cuban dogs and encouraged sacrificial killings in their final effort to terrorize the Black population into subservience. Images from the conflict show dogs lunging and biting Black men and women in public exhibitions, spotlighting a training regimen that was deliberately anti-Black.
This racial violence was central to dog training. When Cuban dogs approached an age of “maturity,” they were forced to repeatedly attack a “figure roughly formed as a Negro in wicker work” that contained blood and the “entrails of beasts.” The trainers anticipated the dog’s heightened smelling capabilities would combine with the visual outline of a “black figure,” prompting the dog to target people of African descent. Once the canines displayed the appropriate ferocity, they were put on the market for sale to hunters of the enslaved throughout the Atlantic, where they were also trained to trail and attack real people.
These public exhibitions of racist, interspecies violence continued into the 20th century. In Germany, Adolf Hitler celebrated the “German shepherd” breed as a symbol of Aryan nationhood as it patrolled Nazi concentration camps. Even after the Third Reich fell in the mid-1940s, European colonists used shepherd breeds like the Belgian Malinois and German shepherd to suppress Black resistance across the globe. Colonial police forces in apartheid South Africa and Zimbabwe used these dogs to intimidate and subvert the activities of anti-colonial activists, and British colonials in Kenya even imported police dogs from South Africa to suppress the Mau Mau Rebellion in the 1950s.
Functioning as a “technology of state power” throughout the 20th century, these particular Shepherd breeds held a trans-imperial reputation of instilling fear within marginalized communities. In the United States, the German shepherd was celebrated as the quintessential “police dog,” and it became a notorious tool of state violence as it attacked peaceful Black protesters throughout the South. By 1963, White Americans witnessed these police dogs attacking African American protesters during the “Birmingham Campaign” led by civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth. Media venues and news stations captured and distributed images of dogs lunging and biting at young protesters.
And yet, K-9 units remain. Handlers claim these dogs are necessary for drug searches, bomb sniffing and apprehending suspects in a nonfatal way. However, they fail to explain why the dogs are trained for maximum aggression, why their bites are far more lethal than those of house pets or why studies show that non-White suspects constitute the largest percentage of those suffering from police dog bites.
The fraught history between police dogs and Black freedom fighters is deep, disturbing and consistent. The case of Jeffrey Ryans is only one of many recent events linking police dogs to anti-Black violence. In the recent protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Black protesters in California’s Bay Area were attacked by police dogs. An officer involved in the 2019 killing of Elijah McClain in Colorado threatened to set his dog on McClain if he failed to comply. These episodes of anti-Black canine terror are not outliers, but they follow in a long tradition of ritualistic, interspecies violence intended to intimidate, suppress and marginalize Black people. The question police forces must now answer is this: How many Black people must be mauled or terrorized before the K-9 units are suspended indefinitely?