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SDPD Releases Statistics On Bites By Police Canines In Wake Of July Arrest

A San Diego police officer with a police dog waits outside a house with a pos...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: A San Diego police officer with a police dog waits outside a house with a possible suspect inside Friday, July 29, 2016.

Video of a shirtless Karond Cheatum lying face down on the ground as a police dog bit his arm, prompted Trunell Price of the newly resurrected San Diego Black Panther Party to speak out.

“What happened to Mr. Cheatum was an inhumane act,” Price said. “They had no compassion for the fact that they had this suspect on the ground in handcuffs and allowed the canine to continue to chew on him.”

Police were responding to calls on July 9 that Cheatum was darting through traffic, leaping onto cars and picking fights in downtown San Diego. According to reports, Cheatum had also threatened officers when the dog was released and bit him.

Photo credit: Angel Nunez

Video still shows a handcuffed man, Karond Cheatum, being bitten by a San Diego Police dog, July 9, 2017.

The video of the incident shows the police dog clamped onto Cheatum’s arm with such a hold that it took at least half a minute for an officer to work to get the animal to release.

“Our dogs bite,” said Larry Adair, a canine handler at the San Diego Police Department for 15 years. “They bite and hold. It’s trained behavior. We’re looking to apprehend or stop a behavior and the bite and hold allows us to gain control of an individual, minimize the amount of damage that is done because by and large this bite is a couple of punctures and pressure as opposed to the multiple bites.”

Adair would not talk about the Cheatum case because it is under investigation.

But he did talk about how officers remove a canine off a suspect. It is not by verbal command.

“We remove the dog physically,” Adair said. “Mechanical application of pressure on the dog’s correction collar to forcibly remove them from the bite when it’s safe to do so.”

The department has 33 canine teams.

A photograph of San Diego Police canine handler Larry Adair with his dog Jake who was stabbed by a suspect 15 times in 2008, Sept. 1, 2017.

Adair said San Diego police use a cross section of breeds including Belgian Malinois, German Shepherds and Dutch Shepherds. Adair said the department imports sports dogs from Europe to use in police work.

“We’re buying an athlete,” he said. “What we buy are the double AA ballplayers who ain’t making the pros.”

Once the dogs arrive in San Diego, the goal is to create an environment where the animals can bond with their handler.

“They arrive dirty, sick and stressed because of the travel," Adair said. “We take them home with us. They get cleaned up. That bond and relationship starts.”

The dogs attend a 10-week academy and undergo further training regularly. Actual deployment depends on the dog's aptitude.

Police canines do smell and hear well. They are often used to track people. They can search for explosive devices. And they apprehend suspects. Like many departments across the country, San Diego police use the dogs as a force option.

”When the police dog shows up, people tend to give up," Adair said. “There’s something visceral, dinosaur brain inside us, nobody wants to get eaten.”

Adair said of the nearly 10,000 radio calls for canine teams since January of this year, they were deployed 1,300 times. Of those deployments, there were 20 bites. He said during that period, no force was used at least 145 times due to the presence of a dog.

Adair said the de-escalation that comes with using canines is vital.

“I’ve been shot at nine times,” he said. “In my career six officers have been murdered. My partner Jake was stabbed 15 times saving my life in 2008. I’m alive because that dog was there.”

Adair said the dogs also keep the public safe.

But San Diego lawyer Nathan Shaman is not so sure.

“I personally don’t believe that it is appropriate to use canines for force at all,” Shaman said.

His client Sarah Lowry was bitten by a San Diego police canine in 2010, after she tripped a silent burglar alarm at her workplace. She sued. But a federal appeals court ruled in June that the officers used reasonable force. Shaman said he is appealing the case to the California Supreme Court.

Since 2013, there were 223 dog bites reported by San Diego police.

Since 2014, there have been five claims filed against San Diego over police dog bites. Two of those cases were settled, one for $1,000 and another for $385,000.

Shaman argued dogs are too difficult to train to respond consistently to commands.

“They are too unpredictable in their behavior," he said.

Shaman said there is another way. The Los Angeles Police Department trains its dogs to find and bark, instead of bite and hold as is the practice in San Diego. In Los Angeles, the dog is trained to bite only if the suspect tries to attack the dog or flee.

San Diego Public Safety Committee To Discuss Use Of Police Canines


Amita Sharma, investigative reporter, KPBS News



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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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