Vancouver police dog bites reach 116 this year

Pivot Legal Society calls for review of how VPD deploys dogs

More than 100 people bitten by Vancouver police dogs this year have required treatment in hospital, according to statistics released to the Courier by the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.

Statistics show that between Jan. 1 of this year and Oct. 26, a total of 116 people were injured severely enough by the VPD’s police dogs that a trip to the hospital was necessary. Injuries ranged from small wounds requiring stitches to broken bones and ligament damage requiring surgery, said Deputy Police Complaint Commissioner Rollie Woods.

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“Sometimes, they’re quite bad,” said Woods, noting the Independent Investigation Office investigates the incidents involving serious harm. “But most of them are the minor stitches and bandaging type of injuries.”

With two months left in the year, the 116 dog bite incidents appear to be on track to drop below last year’s total of 141, which was a significant increase from 73 bites in 2014 and 57 in 2013. Police attribute some of the spike in bites over the past two years to several of its dogs and handlers, who were injured and off duty in 2014, returning to work in 2015.

“We were going to far fewer calls,” said Sgt. Brian Montague, a VPD media liaison officer.

Vancouver has the largest municipal dog squad in B.C. — 15 teams — and answers an average of 10,000 calls per year. The dogs are trained to track and catch suspects involved in such crimes as burglaries and robberies, recover evidence and search out drugs, guns and explosives.

Abbotsford police, with 12 reported dog bites as of Oct. 26 this year, was second to Vancouver’s total. Delta and New Westminster both reported eight. Victoria reported five, Port Moody three and Saanich two.

The Courier obtained the statistics the same week Pivot Legal Society called publicly on the police services branch of the provincial government to release the most recent data on police dog use in B.C. and review how the VPD deploys its dogs. The society also wants dog handlers to wear body cameras.

Pivot lawyer Douglas King, who requested the information, said the number of bites from VPD dogs in the past two years should alarm the public. King said the VPD will use the argument that it has more dogs than any municipal force, responds to more calls and is able to get to calls quickly and, therefore, shouldn’t be compared to other departments.

“The VPD’s numbers are certainly out of whack with every other department,” he said. “They’ve got their reasons and their justifications for why that might be the case, but ultimately you’ve got to have somebody independent like provincial police services [review the incidents].”

Ultimately, King added, a police dog should be used for tracking or other speciality roles but not as a weapon. He said people who have been bitten by dogs and complained to Pivot claim they had given themselves up but still had a dog attack them. He also noted the average of 10,000 calls per year responded to by dog teams doesn't always mean a dog will be used at a scene, with a suspect being arrested before a dog is deployed.

King’s requests last week to the government were triggered by a Sept. 19 incident in New Westminster, where an innocent man was severely injured by a Vancouver police dog during the arrest of suspects connected to a kidnapping and homicides at a house on Dieppe Place, near Grandview Highway and Boundary Road.

The bite was one of the 116 recorded by the police complaint commissioner’s office this year.

Pivot identified the man as Vick Supramaniam, who had a portion of his ear torn off by a dog. The dog then grabbed the man’s leg and pulled him down a hill, according to King, who highlighted the incident in a letter to the provincial government requesting dog bite statistics and a review of the VPD’s deployment of dogs.

“In statements made to the media regarding this incident, the VPD have stated that Mr. Supramaniam was fleeing the scene, which was the source of their confusion,” said King’s Oct. 24 letter to the province’s director of police services. “Mr. Supramaniam is adamant that this is not correct, and that he was lying prone behind a bus stop when the dog was used against him. The VPD’s police dog bit Mr. Supramaniam first in the head, before physically pulling him a significant distance down a hill. Both actions are indicators that the police dog was not in control and are inconsistent with the ‘bite and hold’ method of training the VPD states it employs.”

The Independent Investigations Office is investigating the incident, which involved a takedown of suspects in vehicles. The VPD, meanwhile, has apologized for what happened to Supramaniam but made it clear what was at stake in rescuing a hostage.

“In this situation, I’d be willing to guarantee that if they got away, that hostage would be dead,” Montague told the Courier. “Obviously, there’s no intent to bite someone that’s not involved in criminal activity like that. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances that resulted in this person getting bit, who was clearly not involved.”

Montague said he can’t recall an incident in recent years involving the dog squad where a complaint was substantiated by the police complaint commissioner’s office or the Independent Investigations Office. He said there is “a ton of oversight” for the dog squad. That includes a dog handler answering to his superior officers, to Chief Adam Palmer, to the complaint commissioner’s office, to the Independent Investigations Office, to the Vancouver Police Board and the courts.

“It’s unfortunate that bites take place,” Montague said.  “We don’t want bites to take place, we want everyone to comply but the reality is people don’t. And in some cases, deploying that dog to make an apprehension will involve a bite, and it’s done to ensure the safety of the officer and it’s done to ensure the safety of the public.”

Montague cited a recent case where a man attempted to flee police on a motorcycle. Police used their vehicles to pin in the man, who attempted to escape before a handler commanded his dog to stop the suspect.

“The alternative is letting this guy get his motorcycle out of this situation and becoming a cruise missile down the streets of Vancouver,” he said.

New rules for all B.C. police dogs and their handlers became effective Sept. 1, 2015. The rules require all officers to complete a detailed report for each bite incident, take photographs of injuries and provide related data to the police services division of the Ministry of Justice.

The new standards — the first of their kind in Canada — also require annual testing of every dog handler team. Notably, dogs must demonstrate their ability to be called off a suspect, remain under control while biting and promptly release a bite upon hearing a handler’s command.

Three months prior to the new rules taking effect, the Vancouver Police Board approved an updated policy on the use of the VPD’s dogs, including clear guidelines for taking photographs, giving “loud verbal” warnings before a dog is deployed and how the use of a dog “must be proportional to the level of risk posed to the officer, the suspect and the public.”

From Woods’ review of recent VPD dog bite incidents, he said the department is adhering to the new standards and complying with the Police Act. He added that complaints about dog bites are rare and noted the VPD dog handler teams are “catching a lot of people who are committing crime that otherwise wouldn’t be caught.”

As for Pivot’s call for dog handlers to be equipped with body cameras, Montague said police are not opposed to the concept. But, he said, the cost of setting up a body camera program for the VPD has been estimated at $17.2 million. The cost includes staff, equipment and essentially creating a new unit within the department.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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