K-9 bite cases leave a trail of questions
Michael Hagemann had his run-ins with the law, so when St. Paul police tried to stop him in April 2016 for riding a stolen scooter, he ditched it and hid under a wheelbarrow.
Officer Mark Nelson was close behind with his K-9 partner, Deuce, on a 15-foot lead. Soon, Deuce was latched onto Hagemann’s head. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Hagemann struck Deuce with both hands. Deuce went for Hagemann’s left arm and then his torso, tearing through a Carhartt jacket and a hoodie underneath. Hagemann received 80 stitches.
“He said the dog was not listening to [Nelson’s] commands” to release, recalled Hagemann’s mother, Pamela.
Police K-9s are touted as “force multipliers” capable of tracking dangerous felons and detecting explosives and drugs while bridging the gap with the public. They’re overwhelmingly used in situations where no one is bitten.
But those who live with the aftermath of K-9 bites say the dogs can also be indiscriminate weapons. A review of six years of K-9 bite reports from St. Paul police show that their dogs were routinely used on nonviolent offenders who were nearly always fleeing or hiding instead of threatening harm or displaying weapons.
Police defend the use of their dogs in apprehending people. But in April, St. Paul released a new policy limiting apprehension, saying the move was part of ongoing efforts to review all of its policies.
It now prohibits apprehensions solely on the basis of nonviolent allegations such as auto theft, among others. Apprehension is still allowed in the face of a physical threat.
Blacks were disproportionately represented in 133 bite reports filed between January 2012 and mid-December 2017. They represented about 47 percent of all bites while accounting for about 16 percent of St. Paul residents.
The disparity doesn’t surprise activist Tyrone Terrill, who for decades has fought against using dogs, calling it an “inhumane” practice.
“It’s not just the dog bite; it’s the historical trauma that goes along with it,” said Terrill, president of the African-American Leadership Council. “We’ve got 450 years of slavery. We’ve got 450 years of dogs biting us.”
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said the numbers were not the result of profiling, but the trickle-down effect of several issues that disproportionately impact communities of color. He and other advocates of K-9 apprehension say the outcome ultimately lies with the suspects, not police.
“My greatest hope is that an apprehension is never necessary,” Axtell said, “but that’s not our choice.”
Axtell cited the August 1994 killings of officers Ron Ryan Jr. and Tim Jones, and Jones’ K-9 partner, Laser. Ryan was fatally shot on duty. Jones and Laser were looking for his killer when the suspect shot them. Axtell said dogs often stand in for officers in dangerous situations and can mean the difference between life and death.
The past six years included five incidents involving explicit threats or the brandishing of a weapon. In one case, a man barricaded himself in a car and claimed it was rigged to explode. K-9s were also used to apprehend people in three homicides.
Award-winning K-9 officers
St. Paul’s K-9 unit is lauded as an example, and members have been named the nation’s top four-handler team at the U.S. Police Canine Association’s annual field trial three years running, from 2015 to 2017.
Some officers documented known suspects in their reports and cited previous violent offenses as a reason for deploying their dogs. Many times, officers said they were concerned because an unknown suspect had not been vetted for possible weapons.
“… I did not know the identity of the suspect, and the suspect had not been searched,” Nelson wrote of his decision to use Deuce in the search for Hagemann. “The suspect had fled into a residential area, making him an immediate threat to the general public.”
A different K-9 handler tried to stop Hagemann, 38, two months after his encounter with Deuce. Hagemann fled on a stolen motorcycle until it struck a tree stump, sending him flying into a schoolyard where he suffered massive head injuries and died.
Pamela Hagemann and her daughter, Vanessa Hagemann, are haunted by the possibility that Hagemann’s first K-9 encounter influenced his actions the day he died. Hagemann had no violent or weapons-related convictions, nor was he armed in either encounter with St. Paul police.
“To sic a dog on a nonviolent person?” Vanessa Hagemann said. “It has to fit the crime. I don’t think he deserved to be chewed up …”
While case law gives officers broad discretion to use force, including dogs, advocates for reform argue that the fear a suspect may be armed is not sufficient grounds.
Police “need to have some specific fact suggesting that they’re armed,” said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. “You can say ‘I didn’t know a person was armed’ about anybody on the street, and that doesn’t justify a search or seizure.”
No weapons were reported in about 74 percent of calls. Guns were reported in 18 percent, knives in 3 percent and other weapons in 4 percent.
There was no verbal threat against officers 95 percent of the time, and no weapons were brandished against police in about 96 percent of the calls.
Officers used K-9 apprehension in at least 19 auto theft cases and a number of burglaries where no one was home, which will be prohibited by the new policy.
“While canines are a valuable part of our public safety toolbox, history has shown the importance of deploying them only with the highest standards of accountability, transparency, and respect for the communities they serve,” Mayor Melvin Carter said in a written statement. “I appreciate the changes Chief Axtell has made to department policy to ensure we learn from, and never repeat, the lessons of our country’s painful past.”
Axtell said K-9-aided apprehensions will decrease but declined to say whether some previous bites could have been avoided.
“Without looking at each of those cases right now, I really can’t comment on … any of those,” he said.
Officers indicated about half the time their K-9 followed a track or searched a building and apprehended a person with no additional verbal instruction from them. Handlers in 22 cases, or 16 percent, specifically noted that they gave their K-9 a verbal command to apprehend.
Kyle Heyen, a former police officer and consultant for training law enforcement dogs, calls the first technique “find and bite,” which is common across the country.
That technique was apparently being used by officer Thaddeus Schmidt when his K-9 partner, Gabe, looking for two male burglary suspects, turned around a dumpster on a 20-foot lead and clamped down on bystander Desiree Collins on Sept. 23, 2017.
Collins, 53, recently recalled that she didn’t see Gabe until after she was bitten, nor did she hear any warnings or instructions from Schmidt.
Gabe bit Collins several times and eventually grabbed her right arm. He ignored orders to release, forcing Schmidt to grab him from behind as another officer pulled on Collins’ left arm.
“They were having a tug-of-war with me,” Collins said.
Schmidt was suspended for a day for sending Gabe around a corner without a visual inspection or a verbal warning. But 52 percent of handlers reported that the first time they saw a person was after their dog had made an apprehension, often pulling someone out from behind a building or from under bushes and other hiding places.
Other duties for K-9s
St. Paul police noted that apprehensions are a small percentage of K-9 work. They recorded 142 apprehensions among 92,239 K-9 calls between January 2012 and March 2018. The city classified 10 bites as accidental.
A margin of error is inevitable, said Blaine K-9 officer Reginald Larson, board member of the Police Canine Association Region 12, which includes Minnesota. Dogs in the field react to genuine human stimuli, and that effect cannot be replicated in training, he added.
“It’s an animal; it has a mind of its own,” Larson said. “It is a difficult job, and it is not a perfect science.”
Even the nation’s best aren’t immune. Schmidt and Gabe were part of St. Paul’s national award-winning team in 2015 and 2016. Documents show that Gabe was so worked up in a 2014 burglary call and a 2016 alarm call that he attacked furniture in the unoccupied buildings. He knocked down and bit a bystander near a bus stop in 2016.
Gabe and Schmidt were removed from the K-9 unit after the attack on Collins.
A tenet of police canine training is that all dogs release a bite on a verbal command.
“Complete control at all times,” said the group’s executive director, David Ferland.
But people who have been bitten by St. Paul police K-9s say that doesn’t happen.
Officers in eight reports said they used a verbal command to release their dog from a bite, although it wasn’t always clear whether the order was followed. Most used vague language such as “removed” to describe how their K-9 was separated from a bite.
K-9 handlers were inconsistent in documenting the severity of injuries, often leaving the field blank. About half reported that the person sustained “minor” injuries.
Nationally, bite injuries are “greatly intensified” from a decade or two ago because handlers leave dogs on a bite until the person is “totally compliant,” Heyen said.
The attack set off a tailspin for Collins, who doesn’t have a left hand. She didn’t shower for eight days to keep the wound on her right arm dry. She couldn’t brush her hair or teeth because the flexing interfered with healing.
When she saw a dog — even a small one — she crossed the street.
“Some days are better than others,” Collins said of her recovery, which includes weekly therapy. “What if it was a child going out to dump their garbage? What if it was an elderly person? It could have been anybody.”
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib