St. Paul’s revamped K-9 program tracks most violent crimes
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Just after a recent midnight, a 17-year-old unleashed his threats to a room full of people in St. Paul.
He pointed a gun at multiple people in the house where he was drinking, said “I’m gonna shoot” and pressed the gun against a woman’s head, according to a court document. Two people who went outside heard a gunshot at one point.
After the teen ran, a St. Paul police officer and his K-9 joined the search. They found him hiding under a porch nearby in the Payne-Phalen area and officers arrested him without incident.
Another K-9 helped search for the gun, and an officer found a loaded, stolen firearm.
Police say the case demonstrates how K-9s are now being used in St. Paul — under a new policy that’s more restrictive and relies on the dogs to respond only to the most violent offenses, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
It has the K-9s focus on tracking and tries to have officers arrest suspects, rather than a dog biting a person to get him into custody. There is also more training and supervision.
The changes happened after a series of high-profile K-9 bites. They culminated last summer with the police chief and mayor pulling back on use of the K-9s until an external audit could be carried out.
Now, police department officials say they’ve implemented 35 of the 39 recommendations from the review.
“We’ve really landed on the notion that our K-9 unit is there to be a locating tool for us, to help maximize both officer and civilian safety and not as a primary tool for apprehension,” said St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter. “Obviously, in extenuating circumstances, that’s still a possibility, but we don’t want to see our dogs biting someone as a primary tool for apprehension.”
The new policy went into effect at the start of June and was among the topics that Police Chief Todd Axtell recently talked about during his annual address to the St. Paul City Council.
Though St. Paul’s police dogs historically were used as locating tools, the independent review of the unit found there was a shift at some point — K-9 tracks of suspects frequently ended with the dog biting people to take them into custody, wrote retired St. Paul Police Chief Bill Finney. Finney conducted the audit that was released in January.
The new policy emphasizes that when a K-9 finds a suspect, officers will try to get the person into handcuffs.
Deputy Police Chief Matt Toupal, who oversees the K-9 unit, said that doesn’t mean the dogs will never physically apprehend a suspect — in other words, bite the person. But the revamped policy is more specific about when they can be used for that purpose.
St. Paul K-9s physically apprehended 23 people per year, on average, between 2012 and 2017.
Since the restrictions were put in place last July, there were no K-9 bites of suspects or otherwise, according to police department statistics. The K-9s also were used more sparingly for tracks and evidence searches, but they likely will be called out more frequently now that the new policy spells out when they can be used.
While previous policy said police dogs had the primary purpose of apprehending felony suspects, the new policy is more limited.
It specifies that K-9s can be used if a person is suspected of murder, aggravated robbery with a gun, kidnapping, sexual assault involving violence, aggravated assault with a gun or weapon that can cause great bodily harm, and some instances of burglary. They can also be used to search if there is an immediate threat of serious physical harm if the person is not immediately detained.
“We’re going to take our K-9s out when we have to and when our community is at risk, all with the purpose of making the community safer,” Toupal said. “We’re not going to be taking these K-9s out for incidents that are not going to put our community at imminent risk.”
Dianne Binns, who was St. Paul NAACP president until earlier this year, said she has heard from community members who think St. Paul should not use police dogs.
Some were previously bitten by K-9s and “they didn’t feel that was an appropriate thing that should have happened to them for street-level and low-level crimes,” Binns said.
Binns reviewed the new policy when the police department was working on it and she said she thinks it’s an improvement to have K-9s focused on the most serious crimes.
She also views the additional training as important. Police dogs and their handlers already received 16 hours a month of continuing training, and now eight hours have been added to the monthly requirement, Toupal said.
Now, Binns said she expects people will be watching to see if “there’s a difference in how the dogs respond.”
Carter said abolishing the K-9 unit was never a consideration.
“I’ve seen our K-9 unit literally since I was a very young child,” said Carter, whose father is a retired St. Paul police officer. “My father used to take us out to the K-9 demonstrations and I’ve just seen what that unit is capable of, I’ve seen the way those officers serve our community with distinction and the goal has always been to ensure that that department and our entire department is able to provide the top quality service possible.”
St. Paul K-9s accidentally bit people 12 times between 2012 and last July, and most of those dogs and handlers are no longer in the unit.
The one remaining K-9 nipped at a 10-year-old boy’s shirt, leaving him with a scratch on his stomach, when the child came up quickly behind the dog and reached his hand out in May 2018, according to a police report.
That dog’s handler remains in the unit, as does another officer whose dog was involved in two accidental bites in 2013; he now has a different K-9.
St. Paul paid out more than $2.6 million in six K-9 bite cases that happened between 2013 and last July.
The most costly was $2 million to Frank Baker, who fit a general description of a suspect but turned out not to be the suspect or involved in a crime. A K-9 held Baker’s leg for 70 seconds, while an officer kicked him in 2016.
Attorney Robert Bennett, who with Andrew Noel represented Baker and two other people who received settlements from St. Paul after K-9 bites, said he sees the policy changes as addressing serious concerns they found in their cases.
Desiree Collins, for example, was taking out her garbage when she was bit by a K-9 who was looking for a male burglary suspect in 2017. The handler’s announcement about the presence of the dog happened about seven minutes before the encounter and not in the area where Collins ended up being attacked, Noel has said. St. Paul settled Collins’ lawsuit for $520,000.
The new policy specifies that officers are to make loud announcements about the presence of a K-9 every time they move to an area where the previous warning may not have been heard.
“My civil rights clients want this to never happen again to anyone, and these policies appear to attempt to do that,” Bennett said.
With 16 K-9s and handlers, St. Paul has fewer dogs than past years. When Animal Planet featured the unit in the show “K9 Cops,” which premiered in 2008, there were 22 St. Paul police dogs.
The St. Paul police K-9 unit has consistently been recognized as national leaders. They won top department team in the U.S. Police Canine Association national competition in six of the past 10 years.
Finney’s report recommended prioritizing matching K-9s and handlers, and they’ve aimed to do that as the St. Paul Police K-9 Foundation donated five dogs to the unit in the past year, Toupal said. They look at how officers’ and dogs’ temperaments will pair up, along with how their sizes compare to each other, said Sgt. Mike Ernster, a St. Paul police spokesman who was previously a K-9 handler.
All except one of St. Paul’s K-9s and handlers are now certified in tracking, which they hadn’t been in the past. The dogs follow human scent, and clues like grass that has been trampled by someone running away, Ernster said.
The department allocated about $1,800 per handler to standardize K-9 equipment, according to Ernster.
Paul Kuntz, president of the St. Paul Police Federation, believes the K-9 policy needed to be tightened up, but he said any perception that the dogs were just “out attacking people was not the case.”
Patrol officers have mixed feelings about the new policies, including some with concerns about officer safety because of the restrictions on K-9 use, Kuntz said.
For example, if officers are called about an alarm that’s sounding and find a door ajar, but not direct evidence about whether a burglar is inside, they’ll have to search the building themselves, under the new policy.
“When there’s a large building, a dog would be able to search very, very quickly and now it’s going to fall on patrol officers to do that,” Kuntz said. “It’s very time consuming to do it right and do it safely so that nobody gets hurt.”
The police department provided officers additional training on building searches, Toupal said.
When the K-9s were not allowed to be used much over the last year, as the audit was being completed and the new policy written, the handlers would assist other officers on patrol, Toupal said.
Now, with the policy in place, Kuntz said handlers are “happy with the fact they get to go out and work their dogs and show, ‘We’re just here to protect people, we’re here to do our jobs.’”
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com