9. Police Use Dogs as Instruments of Violence, Targeting People of Color
The use of vicious dogs to control Black people dates back to slavery, but it’s not ancient history according to an investigative series of 13 linked reports, titled “Mauled: When Police Dogs are Weapons,” coordinated by the Marshall Project in partnership with AL.com, IndyStar, and the Invisible Institute. They found evidence that the pattern continues to this day, with disproportionate use of police dogs against people of color, often resulting in serious injury, with little or no justification. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a majority-Black city of 220,000, is the dog-bite capital of America, with a bite rate more than double the next-ranked city, Indianapolis. According to Bryn Stole and Grace Toohey’s February 2021 report:
Between 2017 and 2019, Baton Rouge police dogs bit at least 146 people, records show. Of those, 53 were 17 years old or younger; the youngest were just 13. Almost all of the people bitten were Black, and most were unarmed and suspected by police of nonviolent crimes like driving a stolen vehicle or burglary.
But Baton Rouge is hardly alone. Approximately 3,600 Americans annually are sent to the emergency room for severe bite injuries resulting from police dog attacks. These dog bites “can be more like shark attacks than nips from a family pet, according to experts and medical researchers,” a team of five reporters wrote in October 2020, as part of a summary of the main finding of their research. Other highlights from the series included:
• “Though our data shows dog bites in nearly every state, some cities use biting dogs far more often than others.” This ranged from just one incident in Chicago from 2017 to 2019 to more than 200 in Los Angeles and more than 220 in Indianapolis.
• “Most bite victims are men, and studies suggest that in some places, they have been disproportionately Black.” This includes the Ferguson, Missouri police department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, where it’s been found that “dogs bit non-White people almost exclusively.”
• “Bites can cause life-altering injuries, even death. Dogs used in arrests are bred and trained to have a bite strong enough to punch through sheet metal.”
• “Many people bitten were unarmed, accused of non-violent crimes or weren't suspects at all.”
• “Some dogs won’t stop biting and must be pulled off by a handler, worsening injuries.”
• “There’s little accountability or compensation for many bite victims,” for a wide range of reasons. “Even when victims can bring cases, lawyers say they struggle because jurors tend to love police dogs,” what’s known as “the Lassie effect.”
Though the Black Lives Matter movement has significantly raised public awareness of police using disproportionate force against people of color, police “K-9 violence has received strikingly little attention from corporate news media.” There were exceptions: In October 2020, USA Today published a Marshall Project story simultaneously with the project, and in November 2020, the Washington Post ran a front-page story citing the Marshall Project’s reporting. In addition, NBC News covered Salt Lake City’s suspension of its K-9 program, “after a video circulated of a police dog biting a Black man who was kneeling on the ground with his hands held up.” But aside from these examples, “coverage appears to have been limited to local news outlets,” Project Censored concluded.