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The use of police dogs for crowd control has generated considerable controversy over the years. During the civil rights protests of the 1960s, there was a public outcry after images of protesters being attacked by K-9 officers were broadcast nationwide. By 1977 some 632 canine programs were operating in police departments across the country, despite the negative publicity. Today protests against police brutality and officer-involved shootings took hold in the U.S. once again. But, K-9 officers played a very different role, as here in Rochester.

During the 2020 protests over the killings of George Floyd and Daniel Prude, the Rochester Police Department declined to utilize its K-9 officers. This was in accordance with the department’s guidelines (2015) which stated “they will not be used in crowd control situations or for a deterrent effect at any demonstrations.” However, the RPD did allow New York State Police to bring their K-9 officers to the protests.

On April 26, 2022, the RPD announced 26 new policies for public demonstrations, including one barring K-9 officers from peaceful protests. Other protest policies included limiting the use of pepper spray and mandatory wearing of body-worn cameras, but what about dogs who encounter civilians during regular patrol?

According to Police Chief Magazine, patrol dogs are trained in obedience, protection, searches, tracking, and criminal apprehension. Despite the training and strict guidelines, every year individuals are bitten by police dogs. The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan news organization that focuses on criminal justice, gathered dog bite data from police departments around the country between 2017 to 2019. They also interviewed victims, law enforcement officials and dog trainers and found that the number of police dog bites varied greatly from city to city. For example, while Chicago almost never deployed its police dogs, Indianapolis had 220 dog bites, and, and Los Angeles had more than 200 bites or dog-related injuries where the victims were unarmed, accused of non-violent crimes, or weren’t suspects. Victims were disproportionately Black men.

One reason police dog bites are so disturbing is the damage they can cause. According to the Marshall Project, dog bites “can leave torn muscles and harrowing scars.” In 2018, a man from wounds sustained during an attack by a police dog in Montgomery AL. Despite the damage, no national agency tracks K-9 dog bites.

The RPD K-9 unit guidelines state that the dogs may be used for building searches, tracking suspects or missing persons, search and rescue, explosive/nitrate, narcotics, and security sweeps.

Rochester Police dogs must “undergo intensive training with their handlers, in compliance with New York State standards.” They must also be re-certified annually; patrol, tracking, and narcotics teams must be re-certified tri-annually;

Before deploying a Rochester police dog, the canine handler must weigh the following criteria:

  • The severity of the crime;
  • Whether the suspect poses an imminent threat to safety;
  • Whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest.

The Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank, published Guidance on Policies and Practices for Patrol Canines in 2020. The report states that before unleashing a patrol dog, canine officers should issue a warning, when possible. They should also give the subject ample time to surrender. The report also advises that dog handlers be sure they are justified in using force on a subject before taking a patrol dog off its lead. Additionally, the report recommends that when a police dog attacks a subject it should be quickly and safely removed from the suspect once the suspect no longer poses a threat.

K-9 officers provide vital work, including sniffing out dangerous suspects and helping locate missing children. But even some police officials question whether K-9 officers belong at peaceful protests, where individuals are exercising their First Amendment rights.