Disability Rights Oregon wants the state to bar law enforcement officers from using police dogs in jails to intimidate, control or punish inmates.
Columbia County’s jail is the only one in the state that continues to allow the use of police dogs against inmates, despite recently paying $251,000 to settle a federal lawsuit brought by an inmate bitten by a dog.
Last month, Columbia County’s insurance provider agreed to settle a suit filed by Christopher Bartlett, a 48-year-old former inmate who claimed jail deputies on Aug. 1, 2017, unleashed a police dog on him in retaliation for calling one of them a disparaging name. The dog bit Bartlett’s thigh and left arm, pulled him to the ground and continued to tear at his arm inside a locked cell.
The sheriff’s office, though, didn’t admit liability and said the dog was brought in to remove an inmate who was “threatening and throwing and swinging things” at deputies.
While that case garnered headlines, another case involving a police dog at the Columbia County jail did not: the use of a dog to menacingly bark at a naked inmate who wouldn’t get out of the jail shower in January 2017, according to Disability Rights Oregon. The dog was brought in to intimidate the inmate as jail guards moved in with plastic body shields to remove the man, the nonprofit group said.
Emily Cooper, the group’s legal director, in September met with the commander of Columbia County’s jail and the interim sheriff to urge the Sheriff’s Office to stop using police dogs in jails, but she said she didn’t sway them.
Disability Rights Oregon now plans to push for a bill in the next legislative season that would curb the use of police dogs in jails to control inmates, according to a report by the agency made public Tuesday. The report is titled, “You are Going to Get Bitten: Columbia County Jail’s Use of Canines to Intimidate and Control Inmates.”
“This practice poses an unnecessary risk of harm to both deputies and inmates when safer de-escalation strategies are available,” Cooper said.
After the Bartlett case and a grand jury review, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office adopted a written policy that allows deputies to use a dog if necessary to protect the inmate or jail staff from serious injury.
Disability Rights Oregon believes that policy should be eliminated, noting that the dogs are trained to detect drugs and bombs or track or search for victims or suspects but aren’t trained to pull an inmate from a jail cell.
In the Bartlett case, for example, the dog had received about 330 hours of training in searching, tracking, agility obedience and aggression, compared with seven hours of training on apprehension. Training notes also indicated the dog had difficulty releasing its bite on command and frequently needed an electric collar to halt a bite, the agency’s report said.
“This should not be an acceptable strategy in a civilized society,” Cooper wrote in the report.
Jail deputies should be trained to use de-escalation techniques to deal with volatile situations or conduct mental health assessments of all inmates, Cooper said. In Bartlett’s case, it was unclear if jail staff ever considered whether his refusal to follow their commands stemmed from a mental illness, the report says.
The advocacy group’s report quotes Steve J. Martin, a career corrections professional and a former expert for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the Department of Homeland Security’s Civil Rights Division, who said using a police dog to extract an inmate from a cell presents “unacceptable risks of harm to both staff and inmates.”
The grand jury found that using a dog could be the best way to quell a disturbance, prevent an escape or extract a combative inmate from a cell and that the dog used against Bartlett, a Belgian Malinois, was properly trained.