Santa Clara County Sheriff Sgt. Sean Allen has witnessed the results of about 200 police dog bites at the Main Jail infirmary in San Jose. Over more than two decades, he’s seen exposed and shattered bones, skin torn off faces and chunks of flesh ripped from limbs.
“The dogs inflict damage similar to what you’d see in a shark bite,” Allen told San José Spotlight.
Many of these injuries are from police dogs being sent after people running or hiding from officers, Allen said. They often leave their victims scarred for life. In some cases, police canine attacks are fatal. This could be avoided, Allen said, if California had statewide standards for how officers use police dogs. State law lets law enforcement agencies individually decide how canine units are managed.
Allen and the Coalition for Justice and Accountability, a group of local advocacy organizations including Silicon Valley De-Bug and the Asian Law Alliance, are asking state Sen. Dave Cortese and Assemblymembers Ash Kalra and Alex Lee to create these standards. Until these regulations are passed, coalition members say, Bay Area police departments should shut down their canine units altogether.
“There needs to be different methods that law enforcement uses that don’t result in people being in a hospital with torn flesh,” Asian Law Alliance Executive Director Richard Konda told San José Spotlight. “There’s got to be a better way to interact with people who are presumed innocent.”
The San Jose Police Department’s canine policy allows officers to deploy dogs to track and bite people suspected of a crime who are running from or resisting officers; believed to be armed or threatening to officers; or are hiding in a place where the use of the dog could reduce risk to officers. SJPD canine handlers are required to report all dog bites.
A department representative said its canines tasked with apprehending violent felony suspects and preventing terrorist attacks are “an indispensable asset.”
“Canine unit members go through intensive ongoing training to ensure the safety of the public and other officers,” Sgt. Christian Camarillo told San José Spotlight. “SJPD has continued to implement departmental policy changes in order to be in line with best practices.”
People of color disproportionately bitten
A 2020 Marshall Project investigation found that nationally, police dogs frequently inflict life-changing and sometimes fatal wounds with few consequences. A May investigation by KTVU found San Jose Police Department dogs have bitten 167 people in the past five years, more than any other law enforcement agency in the Bay Area, and nearly twice as many as runners-up Richmond Police Department, with 84 bites and the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office with 80 bites.
Black and Hispanic residents are disproportionately represented in these bites, KTVU found. Nearly 14% of San Jose canine bite victims are Black, despite Black residents comprising only 3% of the city’s population, according to census data. Hispanic residents account for more than half of all SJPD dog bites, but make up only 31% of San Jose’s population. In contrast, white people represent about 20% of bites while comprising nearly 35% of San Jose’s population, and Asian people represent 11% of bites, but are nearly 38% of San Jose’s population.
These statistics make the coalition’s cause a racial justice issue, Konda said, but it’s also a problem for taxpayers. Police canine bites can cost cities millions of dollars in lawsuits and medical bills.
Santa Clara County resident Anthony Paredes, 41, was attacked by a San Jose police dog in February 2020 while hiding from police after his girlfriend robbed a liquor store. Police accused Paredes of threatening the store clerk. Officer body camera footage shows the dog bit Paredes on his throat for a full minute, permanently damaging his voice. In July, Paredes sued the department for $11 million. The case is ongoing.
In 2017, after a San Jose police dog bit 22-month-old Arabella Pena while officers served an arrest warrant on her family’s home, the department agreed to pay for the girl’s medical costs.
Mountain View paid $135,000 in 2020 to settle a lawsuit after a police dog attacked 89-year-old Joel Alejo in his own backyard as police searched for another person, according to local news outlets, and Hayward settled a 2011 lawsuit for $1.5 million after a police dog fatally attacked the wrong man during a robbery investigation.
Many departments don’t hold officers accountable for improper canine deployments. During some arrests, Allen said, officers use dogs when they could’ve handled the situations without using such extreme force.
“The police officer without that dog would not have inflicted that injury,” Allen said. “There would not be a justification for me to take out my baton and hit somebody in the head 40 times (during an arrest).”
Law enforcement agencies also need to initiate cultural shifts among their canine units, Allen said, because many officers assume the suspects they pursue are guilty when they run or hide.
“The presumption of innocence is not something that’s promoted enough in our training and in our culture,” Allen said. “That starts with leadership.”