As many as 15,000 dogs are employed by U.S. police departments. Although many sniff for drugs, bombs, and bodies, a significant portion are trained to bite. Every year, police dogs latch onto thousands of people, some of them accused of violent crimes, but others wanted in low-level, non-violent cases or are innocent bystanders. Since 2011, K-9s have bitten at least 40 people the police were not pursuing, finds an analysis of data, police records, court files, medical studies, and other documents by The Marshall Project, AL.com, IndyStar, and the Invisible Institute. Law enforcement experts say dogs can be crucial tools for officer safety, helping them find and hold dangerous suspects, and resolve situations that might otherwise turn deadly.
“It is much safer to have that dog engage that suspect, at a distance, without the officer being right there,” said Pat McKean, a handler and trainer with the Mobile, Al.,Police Department. “It helps officers go home at night.” Trainers said that although bites can be difficult to watch, if a dog is properly trained, any injuries should be minimal. With little l oversight, K-9 units have received scarcely any scrutiny. Since 2016, at least two people have died after they were attacked by police dogs. Survivors have faced reconstructive surgeries, disfiguring scars, infections requiring hospitalization, and years of therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. Dogs have an especially dark history in policing. They attacked Black civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s, and a century earlier dogs were used to hunt and terrorize enslaved people. A few recent studies have found that some police departments have used K-9s disproportionately against people of color.