The Montgomery Police Department in early July had no policy in place andÂ no precedent to followÂ when one of itsÂ police dogs, trained to apprehend suspects,Â killed a man in the midst of an alleged burglary.
Montgomery officials had never dealt with lethal K-9 forceÂ before Joseph Pettaway died on July 8 after a MPD handler released their dog into a Cresta Circle home.
Pettaway’s death, unique in Montgomery, is alsoÂ one of only a handful of deaths by lethal K-9 force in the United States.
On a summer’s night in 1984, breaking glass tripped a burglar alarm in a Nashville car dealership.
By the time police K-9 team of Officer Ronnie Barnes and dog Casey arrived on scene shortly after midnight, other officers had scouted a broken glass door and a suspect inside the dealership, peering out at them.
Minutes later, the suspect, Daniel Briggs, was lying face down in a pool of his own blood, half of his body underneath a car and Caseyâ€™s teeth around his neck, according to court records.
Six years later, a woman named Laurene MacLeod, homeless and struggling with alcoholism, took refuge for the night in an abandoned house in West Palm Beach, Florida. Two sheriffâ€™s deputies responding to a trespassing call released a German Shepherd named Boss II into the home.
The Orlando Sentinel reported the 108-pound woman panicked when Boss began biting her in the groin, abdomen, legs and breast, attempting to push the dog off. The deputies forced her onto her stomach and handcuffed her before prying Boss away.
MacLeod bled to death fifteen hours later in a hospital, where she reportedly was denied a blood transfusion.
It’s unclear if others have died like MacLeod, Briggs and Pettaway in modern American history â€” Charles Mesloh, a former K-9 handler and criminal justice professor at Northern Michigan University, told NPR earlier this yearÂ that use of force by K-9 units is nearly impossible to track because of a lack of centralized data.
But the cases from Nashville and West Palm Beach are most frequently cited in lawsuits against police use of force, from both sides of the court.
Donald Cook, a Los Angeles civil rights attorney who for decades has litigated police dog bite cases, said deaths from police dog attacks are statistically rare for several reasons.
â€śMost people who die from civilian dog attacks are very young or very old, are bitten by more than one dog, and theyâ€™re not able to defend themselves,” Cook said.Â “Police dog victims are a different story. Most of the victims tend to be adult males. Usually, itâ€™s only one dog. Finally, human intervention is there. Cops can call for medical help right away. The major cause or likely cause of death from a police dog attack is bleeding to death. If you have competent medical personnel available, they can stop that massive bleeding.”
In both the Nashville and West Palm Beach cases, the families of Briggs and MacLeod sued law enforcement for damages. After three years of a high-profile trial, Palm Beach County sheriffs agreed to pay $135,000 to MacLeod’s mother and teenage daughter, plus $100,000 in attorney fees and court costs, according to an Orlando Sentinel report.
But Briggs’ family lost its suit, Robinette v. Barnes,Â and the ensuing court opinion is perhaps the only existing case law precedent for lethal K-9 force cases.Â
Judge Danny Boggs onÂ the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit wrote in a 1988 opinion that Briggs’ death was a “tragic event” but the K-9 upheld his training to seize suspects by the arm and wait for an officer to arrive. By hiding under a car, Briggs’ arms were unavailable. But his neck wasn’t.Â
“However, the mere recognition that a law enforcement tool is dangerous doesÂ not suffice as proof that the tool is an instrument of deadly force,” Boggs wrote.Â
Cook has coined the term “Lassie or Rin Tin Tin effect,” where dogs are an “extremely sympathetic factor” in American society. He worries this and the Robinette v. Barnes opinion allows disassociation from the consequence of using the dog, which can often treat subjects with a level of violent forceÂ its human counterpart could never legally inflict.Â
“What people donâ€™t get is that dogs canâ€™t think. They donâ€™t know how to use force,” Cook said.Â “Would any cop have gone up to (Briggs)Â and banged on his throat with his baton? You canâ€™t do that. The dog does what it does, because itâ€™s a dog. Cops can avoid responsibility for the consequences.”
The Montgomery Police Department currently has five certified dogs, and nine officers assigned to the K-9 unit as handlers. The unit includes both dual-purpose K-9s, dogs trained in apprehension and narcotics detection, and single-purpose K-9s, who are trained as detection dogs.
The K-9s are trained by MPD officers who have been certified by the Alabama Canine Law Enforcement Officers Training Center, MPD Capt. Regina Duckett said.
Dual-purpose dogs are housed at the departmentâ€™s kennel, while single-purpose dogs can live with their handlers, Duckett said.
MPDâ€™s single-purpose dogs were deployed 130 times in 2018 as of July 26, according to numbers provided by MPD.
One apprehension has ended in a bite and, subsequently, a death.
Pettaway was pronounced dead at a hospital, according to an MPD statement.
Preliminary autopsy results released by the State Bureau of Investigation indicated Pettaway died from “an accidental death as a result of a ruptured femoral artery.â€ť Pettawayâ€™s family, piecing together Pettawayâ€™s death from neighborsâ€™ reports, described a brutal scene.
“I don’t care what a person is doing, they don’t deserve to go that way,â€ť Pettaway’s sister, Yvonne Pettaway-Frazier, said.
Dr. Jennifer Hartwell, a trauma surgeon and professor of surgery at the Indiana University School of Medicine, didnâ€™t treat Pettaway. But she said a variety of factors from medication to age to the size of the injury â€” whether a small puncture wound or a â€ścomplete transection of an arteryâ€ť â€” could contribute to bleeding out from the main artery in the upper thigh.
â€śIf there is a significant injury to that artery, a patient can lose a lot of blood very quickly,â€ť said Hartwell.
Despite having no policy in place to deal with Pettaway’s death, MPD appears to have handled Pettaway’s deathÂ similarly to cases where police officers have shot and killed subjects. The State Bureau of Investigation has taken over the case, while the K-9 handler was placed on administrative leave.Â
The K-9 was also taken out of the field, quarantined for several days until SBI released its autopsy results. Duckett said the dog has not returned to duty, as its handler is currently on military leave.Â
SBI’s investigation into Pettaway’s death is ongoing.
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