Saturday, February 4, 2012

Police Dogs and Excessive Force

Christopher Evans is now suing the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) as a result of injuries he sustained from what he alleges to be “excessive use of a police dog”. In June of 2011, Mr. Evans had smashed a window on a bus and subsequently fled the scene on his skateboard.  He was then pursued by a police force and a police-dog. Mr. Evans was “caught” by the dog that bit him so severely that the artery in his leg was nearly hit and Mr. Evans needed almost 100 staples to be closed.

Background – Police Dogs

The Vancouver Police Department’s Dog Squad has been in operation since 1959 and it is the oldest municipal dog squad in Canada. Dogs and dog-handlers go through extensive training that starts when the dog is young in order to train the dog well, and to formulate a “bond” and comfort-level between the dog and dog-handler. There are two circumstances in which a police-dog will be used on a suspect: (1) When the dog-handling police officers believe that a criminal offence has been committed and (2) When the dog-handling police officers feel that the use of force “is needed to apprehend the suspect”.


The main issue involving police dogs is whether using them constitutes excessive force, and if so, when can using a dog be justified? Police dogs are well-trained and can readily be thought of as any other weapon used by a police officer. As stated in the article, Professor Stan Coren of the University of British Columbia explained that “a dog can kill a person in less than 30 seconds”. This was quite possible in the case involving Mr. Evans where: had the dog bit through to the artery in his leg, Mr. Evans could have bled out in moments. 

Police dogs are employed in situations where a suspect needs to be apprehended. In the case of Mr. Evans, it seems fair that a police dog was used as Mr. Evans had the advantage of his skateboard while fleeing.  However, what is of particular concern is what the dog was trained to do after it had apprehended the suspect. Are dogs being trained to employ excessive force on suspects that the dog determines to be a threat? Or, was it merely because Mr. Evans continued to resist that the dog persisted in attacking him? What is noted in the article is that dogs are trained to stop attacking if the suspect goes “slack”. However, is it really that easy to go “slack” when being pursued by a potentially deadly animal?

Of particular concern is the safety of the public at large and the ability to control a police dog, particularly a police dog that goes “rogue”.  Granted, police dogs in force are selectively chosen and trained well. However, anything is possible when there is no control over the dog that may “read” a situation incorrectly and attack anyway. If a deadly attack were to occur, can it simply be concluded that the dog went rogue? Or, was more need to be done when training and controlling the dog? Some may see how it is possible that a dog can be used as a “scapegoat” for police officers who, rather than using force themselves, rely on the dog to do it for them.  An attack by a dog would face less public outcry than an attack by a police officer. Further, very few, if any articles have emerged where a police dog has killed a suspect. Likewise, little negative feedback has surfaced regarding the use of police dogs, even in situations where they attack suspects severely.

On the flip side, the use of police dogs has become a helpful tool to the police. Dogs are used in an array of activities including: finding missing persons; detecting explosives; searching for narcotics, drugs and alcohol; crowd control and several others. Dogs have significantly keener sensory abilities than humans and can conduct searches and chases much faster than humans. In many regards, a dog is an extremely intelligent and useful weapon when trained properly and employed correctly by police. 

Like any weapon or force employed by police, however, there will always be some controversy.  As a result of this case, an inquiry into the Dog Squad has begun by Pivot Legal Society lawyer Douglas King. Mr. King claims that the dogs should only be used when all other arrest tactics have been exhausted. This is understandable given the sheer strength and potential viciousness of the dog. However, in the case of Mr. Evans, it was not necessarily a question of why a dog was used, but rather, how the dog was trained, particularly after it caught a suspect. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see what transpires from this lawsuit and whether training and tactics will be proactively altered in order to better ensure the safety of the public from police dogs. 

Posted by Audrey Wong (Windsor Law I)

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