The Pivot Legal Society is calling on the provincial government to create clear guidelines on the deployment of police dogs in B.C. after issuing a report Thursday that says a person is injured by a dog every two days in the province.
Lawyer Douglas King, who authored the report, said most departments in B.C. have few, if any, policies restricting the use of police dogs. Also, the majority of police forces, including the Vancouver Police Department, train dogs to bite and hold a suspect rather than what is known as the bark-and-hold method.
“Police dogs are actually the number one cause of injury in our province to citizens — more than empty hand [arrests], more than the beanbag gun, than the baton, Taser or pepper spray,” said King at a press conference held at Pivot’s office in the Downtown Eastside.
Pivot collected data over three years from Freedom of Information requests, statistics from the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner and various police departments that showed police dogs in B.C. bit and injured 490 people between early 2010 and early 2012.
Though King said the data received is limited and a sign of the lack of transparency on dog bites, he pointed out dogs working in departments in Vancouver and Abbotsford inflicted a disproportionately high number of bites to suspects compared to other B.C. police forces.
King learned in his research that while the Vancouver Police Department polices 58 per cent of B.C.’s urban population, its dog squad is responsible for 80 per cent of all police dog bites in urban areas.
In 2011, there were 14.75 dog bites per 100,000 persons in Vancouver compared to 12.73 in Abbotsford, 2.5 in Victoria and 2.34 in West Vancouver. Saanich and New Westminster, where departments use the bark-and-hold method, had no recorded police dog bites in 2011.
King said he’s heard the view that if people were abiding by the law, then there would be no need for a person to be bitten by a police dog. But, he said, his data also shows innocent victims were injured by police dogs.
“So this isn’t just a case of crime and punishment, this is about police officers taking the role of the justice system into their own hands and using dogs — not as tools — but as weapons against individuals,” he said. “So, in addition to record keeping, we want to see changes into how police dogs are deployed.”
King said police dogs should only be used to investigate serious crimes or where public safety is at risk — not in shoplifting cases such as one involving Andrew Rowe in 2007 in Langley.
Rowe, now 51, joined King at the press conference to tell his story of how he had his left ear bitten off and his left arm severely injured after he stole a DVD from a store. He said the theft came after he suffered a serious brain injury in an attack, lost his children to the government and ended up homeless.
Rowe said the dog attacked him after he attempted to hide under a small shrub, adding that he wasn’t hidden when the police dog bit into his arm. Then after police laid him face down in a nearby parking lot, Rowe said the police deployed the dog again.
“He latched onto my head, punctured the back of my skull, ripping me to the front of my skull, removing my ear and tearing my face apart,” said Rowe, who is working with King to launch legal action against the RCMP.
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton refused to answer questions about Pivot’s report Thursday when asked at a press conference unrelated to the topic. Anton’s office, instead, issued a statement saying police dogs “are an important, effective policing tool — but like any tool, they must be used consistently and effectively.”
Anton said the government’s police dog working group is working with senior police managers and “non-police stakeholders” to devise common standards, which are being finalized.
“Use of force is a priority for developing policing standards in British Columbia, and that includes those governing police dogs,” she said in her statement.
Const. Brian Montague, a VPD media liaison officer, said Pivot previously brought a complaint before the Vancouver Police Board about what it said was an inappropriate use of police dogs.
He referred the Courier to the police board’s response, which was to dismiss the complaint. That occurred at a police board meeting in 2012, where Deputy Chief Doug LePard said to be convinced the number of bites was a concern, he would need to see proof there is an unreasonable number of cases where the dog and its master have behaved inappropriately and the use of force was not justified.
"I don't see that from [The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner], I don't see that in the court decisions, either civil or criminal,” LePard said at the time. “The fact is that our dog masters have an excellent reputation, conduct themselves extremely professionally and that's borne out in the most important court, which is when they have to account for their actions in the criminal courts."
In 2010, the VPD dog squad attended 1,023 calls, with 140 apprehensions by dogs. The result was 35 to 40 minor injuries and 85 that required medical attention, according to a police board report.
King encouraged police forces and the provincial government to look to Los Angeles for guidance in setting guidelines for the deployment of dogs and the need for a bark-and-hold standard.
A raft of civil suits against the Los Angeles Police Department was part of the reason the force switched to the bark-and-hold training method. In a three-year period before ending the bite-and-hold technique, the canine unit sent 639 people to the hospital. Three years after the switch, the number declined to 66, according to a study conducted by Harvard Medical School.