Pivot Legal Society - Equality Lifts Everyone


Vancouver Police Board shows interest in dog bite complaint


On Wednesday, the Vancouver Police Board officially accepted Pivot's Service and Policy Complaint regarding the training and use of police dogs. Pivot filed the complaint in April after several people came forward with their stories about getting bitten by police dogs, like the notable case of Scott Philippo. Right now, the VPD uses a training technique often referred to as "bite and hold," which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. 

At Wednesday's meeting, Pivot campaigner Doug King made a short presentation to police board members to explain why it would be advantageous if the VPD switched to the "bark and hold" method of training. Based on name alone, it seems clear that the "bark and hold" method is better for suspects, considering the dog isn't trained to use its teeth the moment it's let off its leash. When the Los Angeles Police Department used the "bite and hold" training method, their 15 dog handlers sent more people to the hospital than the rest of the 8,450 officers on the force combined.

A raft of civil suits against the LAPD was part of the reason the force switched to the "bark and hold" training method. In a three-year period right before the training method changed, the K-9 unit sent 639 people to the hospital. In a three-year period after the switch, that number declined to 66, according to a study conducted by the Harvard Medical School.

The change would also likely be to the benefit of to the police and to the taxpayer, as well. A precursor to the LAPD's change in policy was a multi-million dollar lawsuit stemming from a dog bite incident. As the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court commented in that case:

    "A jury could conceivably decide, for example, that although the officer's on-the-scene decision to use canine force was reasonable under the circumstances, the city was nevertheless at fault for providing its officers with dogs trained to bite and seize all concealed suspects regardless of their efforts to surrender. If the plaintiff could prove at trial that training in less dangerous means of detection and apprehension was both feasible and effective from a law enforcement standpoint (and the city's recent adoption of a "find and bark" policy suggests that it may well have been), then the city's failure so to train its dogs may well have constituted an unreasonable municipal action regarding the use of force."

So far, Canadian courts have refrained from ruling on whether certain dog training methods are negligent, but those cases have turned on a lack of evidence. If a well-prepared plaintiff goes to court one day armed with statistics like Doug gave the Police Board yesterday from other jurisdictions, it is possible that the bite-and-hold method could be found to be a negligent way of training police dogs -- a judgement that would likely be very costly. Switching to the bark-and-hold method likely wouldn't decrease police efficiency, either, as a barking dog can be just as effective.

It was heartening to see how seriously the Police Board members took both Doug's presentation and the complaint. The board had the right to reject the complaint without investigation, which no member even considered doing. The officer in charge of conducting the investigation into the complaint said it would probably take until September or October to do a thorough job researching the complaint and to put together thorough reasons as to why the VPD should either change or retain their dog training policies and procedures. The members had clearly read the complaint and asked the officer to look specifically into certain things, like hospitalization statistics and best practices across other police departments. 

The only moment that perhaps raised an eyebrow for me was when one board member asked the officer in charge of the investigation to make sure that the other jurisdictions looked at were "relevant to Vancouver" and then suggested the Los Angeles was perhaps not an appropriate comparator city to Vancouver. To be sure, there are stark differences between the two cities. However, those differences shouldn't be used as an excuse to discount experiences in K-9 training techniques. When a police dog is let off its leash, the dog has no concept of what city it's in or the relevant policing environment -- all it knows is whether it's been trained to bite or bark.