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One Bay Area city, 73 police dog bites, and the law that made them public

How the city of Richmond could be a test case in California’s quest for police accountability

Odin lunges during training at the Richmond Police K-9 training facility in November. Richmond police have logged dog bites at a higher rate than their counterparts in the nation’s largest cities, but police argue it’s better to use dogs than guns. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

This story appeared in The San Jose Mercury on December 19, 2021. 

By  | jsulek@bayareanewsgroup.com and  | hrowan@bayareanewsgroup.com | Bay Area News Group

PUBLISHED: December 19, 2021 at 6:01 a.m. | UPDATED: January 10, 2022 at 6:17 p.m.

RICHMOND — On the last Saturday of 2019, Richmond Police Officer Brandon Hodges sent his trusty police dog Gunnar under a porch to confront a hiding auto burglary suspect, much as he had done many times before.

But this time, something wasn’t right.

“I attempted to call K-9 Gunnar to my side several times,” Hodges later wrote in a police report, but the Belgian Malinois “refused to come off the contact ​​as the suspect was screaming, flailing his arms, agitating K-9 Gunnar.”

The dog, whose harness had snagged on a piece of wood, tore into the man’s head, forearm, leg and upper back — and for the 10th time that year, a Richmond Police officer and his canine partner used force that sent someone to the hospital. That same year, New York City’s police department reported only six canine bites. Chicago reported one.

Disclosures about how police use force are long overdue in California, police accountability advocates say. But the incidents in Richmond almost never came to light, despite a 2018 law meant to bring about a new era of transparency among the Golden State’s long-secretive police departments.

Many of the state’s law enforcement agencies — and most of its largest — have flouted the law’s requirements to disclose details of incidents in which police cause significant injuries, releasing few cases or none at all, according to a new analysis by a coalition of media organizations known as the California Reporting Project.

The city of Richmond had been typical of the resistance — with one key difference.

When the Bay Area News Group and its media partners used Senate Bill 1421 to request records on Richmond’s officers going back to 2014, the department initially claimed it had just 13 cases that met the law’s requirements.

So the media groups sued Richmond and won perhaps the most sweeping disclosure order California has yet seen under the terms of the new law, opening a torrent of other records.

They showed Richmond police used force that caused significant injuries 122 times over a six-year period — and more than half of those were caused by police dogs. Richmond’s canine squad violently apprehended more than 70 people — an average of one every month — from dangerous felons to petty thieves to people acting “suspicious.” Sometimes, innocent bystanders got hurt along the way.

‘Now the public can see these cases’

The newly revealed documents paint a far different picture than Richmond’s own publicity efforts, which have celebrated its dog squad’s crime-fighting prowess, taking pride in the department’s long history as one of the oldest canine units in California.

Some of the dog-bite injuries appear relatively minor, but others were so severe they required surgery. One canine tore off a man’s lip. Another punctured the scalp of an 8-year-old boy after biting an officer and an intruder. A third dog ripped into the arm of a mentally ill, drug-addicted man — who was twice apprehended by Richmond police dogs in 15 months — as his mother watched from behind her sliding glass door.

“It was horrible, horrible, to see my son get eaten up,” said Latonya Walker, who had called police on him during an altercation.

“Everybody’s going to say he deserves it. I say he didn’t, and I’m the mother.”

Richmond police and some city leaders consider their canine handlers heroes who unflinchingly charge into danger in a city plagued by street violence.

Police reason that a dog bite is better than a bullet — who would argue that? — and sending in canines protects officers from closer, potentially more violent encounters. But for a tactic that is fraught with searing images from the civil rights era and can cause deep physical and psychological scars, exactly how and when dogs should be deployed is open for debate.

Community advocates say they welcome that kind of discussion, which is only now becoming possible in California through the disclosures of once-secret police affidavits, firearms and Taser reports, witness and officer transcripts, photos and videos, and internal affairs investigations. Finally, the state has “pulled back the veil” on police use of force, they say, allowing informed discussion of whether it’s justified or not.

“This is fairly basic information that was just completely off the table from the public’s point of view until 2019” when SB 1421 went into effect, said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, which joined in the legal fight for the records in Richmond and other cities. “So now the public can see these cases, and they can decide for themselves whether departments are handling them appropriately.”

Many police departments and unions in the state, however, aren’t on board. As the California Reporting Project has found, more than 173 agencies — representing 84% of the state’s sworn officers — have failed to fully respond to requests for use-of-force records from the coalition of news organizations. They are dragging out their responses, claiming it is too “burdensome” to gather and review the records, or — as Richmond did initially — insisting that many injuries their officers cause are simply too minor to require their release.

In the face of this resistance, individual news organizations are fighting selected agencies. And they’re winning, as long as they’re willing to invest time and money on the battles.

In San Jose, the police department said in the fall of 2019 it would take four years to disclose 75 use-of-force cases requested by this news organization. After it was sued, the department completed the release of most of those records in five months.

In Los Angeles, the sheriff’s department by late June had released only a small fraction of more than 6,000 case files first requested by the Los Angeles Times more than two years earlier. A judge gave the department 90 days to hand over what the Times sought, but six months later, journalists are still waiting for many of those records.

And in Oakland, police officials who had stalled the release of 33 use-of-force cases since early 2019 attempted to convince a judge of their good faith last spring with the 11th-hour disclosure of nearly 4,000 pages of still images from body camera videos — while continuing to withhold the videos themselves. Unimpressed, the judge gave the Oakland PD six months to deliver the rest.

Other battles are continuing around California, and many seem far from resolution. But in a state with more than 115,000 officers, Richmond stands as a case study in what communities can learn about their police through SB 1421, if only officials will agree — or are forced — to follow the law.

What Richmond reveals

Sitting on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay just north of Oakland and Berkeley, this city of 110,000 is home to a Chevron refinery, the national Rosie the Riveter Museum and a violent crime rate that is more than double the national average.

Tensions bubble up between police and community activists, but they all agree the department has come a long way from the 1980s when the city was slapped with a historic police brutality judgment over a group of rogue officers who called themselves “The Cowboys.”

By 2015, under former Police Chief Chris Magnus, the city was lauded by the Obama administration for its community policing efforts and in 2018 was praised in a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report for significantly decreasing its use of force without increasing officer fatalities.

Through SB 1421, however, a fuller picture emerges. Under a court order in the media lawsuit, Richmond Police released documents on 122 cases from 2014 through 2019 involving officers who cut, bludgeoned, tackled, tased, shot or commanded dogs to attack suspects, resulting in significant injuries.

Two of the cases detailed fatal police shootings that were investigated by the Contra Costa County District Attorney and publicized at the time. Four other times Richmond police were involved in nonfatal shootings. In 14 cases, they fired Tasers that caused significant injury.

But the majority of cases described the dozens of largely unknown violent encounters of the department’s canine squad. Hodges and his dog Gunnar injured people in 17 cases, including seven each in 2018 and 2019, according to the review.

Officer Michael Brown was involved in 13 cases that caused injuries, including three in the span of one week in February 2018. Four other Richmond officers and their police dogs were involved in at least five incidents each.

A Bay Area News Group analysis of the new Richmond records and other available use-of-force disclosures revealed:

  • Police dogs typically do more harm than other nonlethal uses of force. Canine contact was four times more likely to result in great bodily injury than the use of a Taser, one of the department’s other most common types of force.
  • Officers often use dogs before threats are clear. More than 80% of the people bitten by dogs were either hiding or running from police; more than 60% were found unarmed.
  • Black people are disproportionate targets. More than half of those bitten by police dogs were described in police reports as Black, among the 65 cases in which a person’s race was noted, although they make up only 20% of Richmond’s population.

The number of police dog attacks uncovered in the newly released records and the damage they had inflicted came as a surprise to Randy Joseph, chairman of Richmond’s Community Police Review Commission that investigates complaints of excessive force.

“That wasn’t even on our radar. None of these cases made the light of day,” said Joseph, who also works as the facilities director at a local youth center. “It’s mind-blowing for me.”

Most attacks ‘within policy’

There are no national standards when it comes to canine policies. Instead, they vary from one city to the next. Richmond’s policy allows officers to deploy dogs whenever officers believe a suspect has committed or threatened to commit “any serious offense,” and when a person “poses an imminent threat of violence,” is “resisting or threatening to resist arrest,” or is hiding in a place that would be dangerous for officers to enter. “Mere flight from pursuing officers shall not serve as good cause for the use of a canine to apprehend an individual,” the policy says.

Across the county line, Oakland’s policy appears to be stricter, allowing officers to deploy dogs only for a “forcible violent crime, burglary, or weapons related offense.” And Oakland reports far fewer dog bite cases than Richmond — 13 from 2015-2019, according to a review of the canine squad by the department’s inspector general.

Both cities require a ranking officer to give approval before a dog is let loose, and the handler must alert suspects about the dog, giving them a chance to surrender.

In Richmond, the vast majority of dog bite cases, internally reviewed every month by a use-of-force committee, were deemed within department policy — even at times when it appeared a suspect tried to surrender or when a dog attacked the wrong person.

That’s what happened during a graveyard shift in August 2014, when Officer Kristian Palma and his Belgian Malinois, Ronin, were hunting for a man accused of assaulting his wife and driving toward officers before crashing and running off as police opened fire.

When the dog homed in on a nearby tool shed, scratching and barking at the door, Palma warned he was letting Ronin inside. The dog pounced on a person concealed under a sheet on the floor, latching his jaws on the man’s arm.

But it wasn’t the suspect.

It was a retired police officer from Mexico who was visiting family and sleeping in their shed. He was treated for bite wounds at Kaiser hospital.

“Based on all the facts gathered before and during the search, there was no way for Officer Palma to not believe that the suspect was not inside the shed,” Richmond Police Lt. Felix Tan wrote in an internal review that cleared Palma.

In another case revealed in the newly released records, there was no apparent “serious offense” when police observed a man walking across Nevin Park in January 2015. He acted “suspicious,” the police report says, and when the man started running away, an officer thought he saw a gun in his waistband. Only later, after Officer Alexander Caine sicced his dog Ranger on the man hiding in a backyard, causing nine injuries to his chest, arms and hip, did police find out the man had a warrant out for his arrest for robbery. It was Caine and Ranger’s third bite in just over three weeks. Despite an “extensive search,” the report said, no gun was found.

“The arrest was necessary for public safety,” Sgt. Esteban Barragan wrote in his report. “And all the actions and decisions regarding the use of police canine were within department policy.”

A rare rebuke

The records do show, however, one time when Richmond determined a canine officer violated department policy.

In April 2018, Hodges was counseled after unleashing Gunnar on a man suspected of stealing a generator from Home Depot. A witness “who could only watch in horror” came forward to report Hodges sent Gunnar to attack a man who “did exactly what he was asked without resisting,” according to a citizen’s complaint revealed through the transparency law.

Alone and waiting for backup, Hodges let the dog loose, as the suspect lay face down, police records and body-camera video footage show. Hodges said he feared the man could pull a weapon and was preparing to flee, and an internal review by Richmond Police called Hodges’ decision a “great option given the circumstances.”

But the review found Hodges neglected something crucial.

“Officer Hodges’ failure to provide an audible warning prior to releasing his police canine is a serious offense,” a Richmond Police captain wrote, recommending a reprimand that instead was reduced to a requirement for more training. “Currently, there are at least seven court rulings that state it is unreasonable for a police officer to utilize a police canine without providing a warning” except in cases when suspects are deemed armed and dangerous.

Officers found a construction knife in the man’s waistband and two bullets in his pocket, police reports said, but he did not brandish the weapon during the encounter.

It was the fourth time in about three months that Hodges and Gunnar had turned up in use-of-force reports. During that stretch, the Kiwanis Club would honor Hodges — for the first of three consecutive times — as Richmond’s Officer of the Year.

The distinction is deserved, said Ben Therriault, president of the Richmond Police Officers Association, who praises Hodges as one of the city’s most active officers in arrests and firearms recoveries.

“He’s what you’d call a good street cop,” Therriault said, “and there’s not a lot of us left doing that work.”

‘We are here for the victims’

There is prestige and honor in serving as one of Richmond’s canine handlers. On a crisp fall afternoon, Hodges and three other canine officers and their dogs ran through practice drills on a grassy field, searching for a human decoy in a padded suit hiding in a shed.

The group meets twice a month to practice what they call “manwork,” training their dogs to search for and bite suspected criminals. The officers call out commands in Dutch and German, the common languages now for specially bred and trained police dogs.

“We don’t want our dogs to do great bodily injury. We don’t want them to permanently hurt someone or scar someone,” said Hodges, with Gunnar patiently sitting at his side. “However, we are here for the victims of these crimes. And we can’t let these suspects stay hiding, especially on these residential blocks. And it’s just the safest, safest way. We don’t want anyone to get hurt or severely injured. But at the same time, it keeps us safe. It keeps our citizens safe.”

From what Paul Murphy has seen, the canine units are a vital part of protecting Richmond businesses like his. He has called police more than once to respond to break-ins at his Goody Goody shoe store on 23rd Street.

“The police gave anyone in there complete and ample warning. They will yell over and over before they let that dog go,” Murphy said. Even if the dog causes serious injury, “my feeling is that if that saved one officer’s life, it was completely worth it.”

Sure enough, the records highlight dozens of times that police dogs brought down clearly dangerous suspects. In 2014, Ranger helped arrest a man who had put a gun to the head of a taxi driver during a robbery. Hodges points to a recent case where a shooting suspect hid so far under a house’s crawl space that he would never have been found without Gunnar’s sense of smell.

“We use a canine a lot, but we don’t get a lot of officer-involved shootings,” said Sgt. Daniel Reina, who supervises the canine unit. His officers often point to the high-profile death of Stephon Clark, shot by Sacramento police in his grandmother’s backyard in 2018 when officers mistook his cell phone for a gun. “So would I rather use a dog versus having someone shot and killed? All day long. You may have some injuries, but they’re not going to be dead.”

Too many dog bites?

Police Chief Bisa French is quick to defend the canine program. French was interviewed over the summer, before being placed on leave in October when she was accused of threatening a family member and her boyfriend over allegations he was pimping the woman. French denies making such threats.

The chief said violent encounters aren’t evidence of police gone rogue but the frequent dangers her officers face under extraordinary pressures — on the streets and from an increasingly hostile public.

French said the department carefully tracks the use of its canines, and its records show arrests and weapons recoveries by the unit outnumber bites by nearly 10 to 1. Most suspects give up when they are warned dogs are poised to attack, her officers say.

“So when you put things into context, that seems to make sense,” she said.

But an investigation last year headed up by the criminal justice journalism nonprofit The Marshall Project and other news organizations found police departments in some of the nation’s biggest cities report far fewer police dog bites. From 2017 to 2019, Chicago reported only one police dog bite, Washington, D.C., reported five, and New York City reported 25.

By comparison, Richmond had 38 police dog bite cases during that same period, more than New York City, which has more than 80 times the population.

Criminal justice experts caution that comparing canine attacks and other uses of force across departments is complex, since different police agencies have various policies, reporting methods and disclosure practices.

For instance, Richmond officers say using dogs helps them avoid using guns. And sure enough, the city had a relatively small number of fatal police shootings from 2015 to 2019 — 2. But Oakland had nine to go with its 13 dog bites, just over four times as many fatal shootings in a city roughly four times Richmond’s size.

Still, Oakland’s canine unit has had its own troubles. A recent internal audit of the unit blasted the department for a breakdown in oversight of the program that included insufficient record-keeping. So far the department has released details of just one of the dog bite cases it tallied from 2015-2019 in response to media requests.

In that case, an officer and his sergeant were admonished for using excessive force by keeping a dog “on the bite” on two 18-year-olds who had run from police. One needed surgery and the other five staples to his scalp.

‘I said ‘I give up’ at least eight times’

Richmond’s dogs wear electronic collars that send a minor shock to retreat. But it isn’t always enough: The dogs are sometimes slow to release the clench of their powerful jaws. At other times, they are locked on to their targets and attack even after suspects raise their hands and try to surrender.

In December 2015, for instance, Officer Palma described how a burglary suspect “attempted to give up prior to Ronin making contact with him, but my K-9 had already closed the distance to within 2 feet.” The dog bit into the suspect’s forearm, the report said, and “held on until other officers arrived.”

Earlier this year, on Jan. 16, body camera videos show, after numerous warnings by police, a suspect hiding in the bushes tries to surrender. But Odin, approaching from another direction, had already been launched.

“I told them not to let the dog loose,” the man says in an interview from the back of an ambulance. “I had my hands up. I said ‘I give up’ at least eight times.”

“By that point,” an officer tells him, “we’re so far away, we can’t hear you.”

In 2017, a pair of teenagers sued the city after a police dog attacked them — instead of a car thief — while they walked home from school. The boy “pulled his girlfriend away and turned to bravely shield her body with his own,” before being mauled himself, according to a lawsuit the city settled for $60,000.

The officer instructed the boy to remain still while he pulled his dog’s teeth from the boy’s arm, the lawsuit said, “as the dog refused to let go.”

In another case that Richmond Police made public when it happened in 2015, an unattended police dog roaming in the department’s parking lot attacked a Richmond police officer, who shot the dog, critically wounding it.

Controlling dogs to stop in the midst of an attack is difficult, Sgt. Reina acknowledged.

“They’re animals, right? So when their drive is in play, they’re going to be focused,” Reina said. “We try to get as much training in to help stop that or prevent that from happening.”

“Accidents do happen,” he said. “Do police officers make bad choices? Yes. Are our dogs animals and go out for prey? Yes. Is it 100% guaranteed? I don’t think there’s anything 100%.”

‘Transparency equals trust’

In the end, Richmond lost its long fight to withhold use-of-force records, but its resistance ended up costing taxpayers $225,000 to pay the media’s lawyers, plus tens of thousands more in the city’s own legal expenses.

While the city may serve as a test case to what Californians can learn about their police departments, a larger battle over the public’s right to know continues in Sacramento.

In October, more than a year after protesters filled the streets over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill designed to expand the scope of SB 1421. But police unions and local government lobbyists succeeded in stripping away many of the new legislation’s most significant provisions before it was sent to Newsom’s desk.

In Richmond, the impact of the original disclosure law is becoming more clear. Joseph, who heads the city’s police review commission, says the release of so many documents will help community members better evaluate what they want from their police force. His city has led the way before in a reckoning over police brutality.

“Transparency equals trust, right?” Joseph said. “If you lay it all on the table, let’s have a conversation about what’s happening. A lot of the mistrust between the police department and a lot of people in the community is that there’s a lot of things hidden. … We just want to know the truth.”

The Bay Area News Group dug into hundreds of internal documents and other materials, including police reports, use of force reviews and officer-worn body camera videos, to examine the Richmond Police department’s canine unit.

The once-secret police files came to light through the efforts of the California Reporting Project, a media coalition that has sought information on police shootings and other uses of force under SB 1421, a landmark 2018 transparency law. The project is now working with Stanford University and UC Berkeley on a multi-year effort to make records from departments around the state available to journalists, researchers and the general public.

Click here to read some of the documents behind the story.

Contributing reporters: Nate Gartrell and David DeBolt

Contributing researchers: Ari Sen, Brian Nguyen, Brittany Zendejas, Daniel Lempres, Deena Sabry, Dylan Svoboda, Eliza Partika, Imran Ali Malik, Jesse Bedayn, Lesley Torres, Mathew Miranda, Michelle Pitcher and Vanessa Flores (KQED/UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism); Molly Peterson, Lisa Pickoff-White and Leila Barghouty. (California Reporting Project)

Legal representation: Tenaya Rodewald and James Chadwick (Sheppard Mullin)

Production Staff & Crew

Jesse Bedayn ( 2021 )

Lesley Cosme Torres ( 2022 )

Vanessa Flores ( 2023 )

Daniel Lempres ( 2021 )

Imran Ali Malik ( 2022 )

Mathew Miranda ( 2022 )

Brian Nguyen ( 2022 )

Eliza Partika ( 2022 )

Lisa Pickoff-White ( 2009 )

Michelle Pitcher ( 2021 )

Deena Sabry ( 2021 )

Arijit Sen ( 2022 )

Dylan Svoboda ( 2022 )

Brittany Zendejas ( 2022 )