Taking the Bite Out of K-9 Related Lawsuits

July 29, 2020

Police K-9s can be one of the most effective tools made available to law enforcement. Often, they’re used in response to dangerous situations that, without their assistance, may have required additional force to resolve. When a K-9 is used, however, it’s nearly inevitable that after the dog bites a suspect, a lawsuit focused on the resulting injury will follow.

In her book Police Dog Tactics, leading police dog trainer Sandy Bryson shared 7 highly effective steps K-9 and non-K-9 officers can take to help deflate illegitimate claims of life-altering damage resulting from police dog use.

Here’s Sandy’s advice:

1. Maintain very detailed records of how the suspect uses the bitten body part. In one case, a suspect sustained minor wounds to both ankles that required minimal stitching. When the time came for him to appear in court, he wobbled in with a tripod cane, looking as though he was barely able to move.

The jury watching the performance would have assumed he had been very seriously injured by the dog. Fortunately, the officers involved, the emergency medical crew and the medical staff at the hospital all kept detailed notes on how the suspect was able to walk into the hospital with no difficulty whatsoever.

Whether you’re a K-9 officer or not, observing and recording the suspect’s behavior in detail after the application of a K-9 can be a lifesaver in court.

2. Be sure to react quickly with first aid after the application of a K-9. Also be sure to prompt paramedic involvement and transportation to a hospital if warranted. This will not only minimize any worsening of the wound but will negate claims that the suspect did not receive proper medical attention after the K-9 made contact.

3. Be sure to relate to medical personnel how the suspect ended up being bitten. If the suspect/patient is the only source for information on how he received the injury, a medical report could read, “attacked by dog and beaten by police.” Obviously, you want to avoid something like that being read in court. “Suspect apprehended by police K-9 while resisting arrest after committing carjacking at gunpoint” sound a lot better than “leg ripped open by police dog.”

4. Inform medical personnel of the likelihood of a lawsuit and the extreme importance of precise, accurate, complete and objective charting. A “4-cm. serrated laceration” can be the same thing as a “bloody, jagged, gaping torn area of tissue” yet the first description sounds a whole lot better than the second. Also be sure to request that very precise measurements be taken of the wound. What can appear as a huge gaping canyon of a wound in an enlarged photo shown in court can be effectively deflated by a well-written medical chart documenting that this was only a 2-cm. wound.

5. When taking photos of the wound, be very sure to take photos AFTER treatment has been rendered as well as before. The bloody canyon of a wound described above that’s packed with gravel and grass IS NOT the wound the suspect is going to live with.

It typically looks worse than it is. Be sure the jury is able to see that. Often what appears to be a disfiguring wound results in a very small, almost imperceptible scar. Avoid having the injury swayed by “before” shots by having “after” shots readily available.

6. Be sure to document the offender’s use of the bitten area AFTER treatment as well, for the same reasons mentioned above.

7. Use solid report-writing skills when documenting the incident. Obviously, avoid statements like, “the dog was sent in to tear the suspect out of hiding,” or “I launched my dog to chew the gun out of the suspect’s hand.” Taking these steps can have long-term impact on the use of K-9s nationwide. “Suspects bitten by police K-9s have not fared well in the legal system when litigating against law enforcement agencies,” observed a physician who serves as an expert witness in K-9 cases. “On the other hand, one or a small handful of victories by plaintiffs could put K-9 units out of business across the country,” he said. “It is critical that law enforcement personnel apply the extra effort and take the often-simple steps that will hopefully ensure continued success against groundless lawsuits.

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