Should Police Dog K9 Units be Defunded as an Outcome of Black Lives Matter?
Police dogs are trained to use their natural abilities for the benefit of law enforcement. Not including food and vet care, the cost of acquiring and training one police dog in the US is approximately $25,000. These dogs are trained to not only apprehend escaping suspects they may also have skills to detect drugs and to find missing persons. Compared with humans, a dog’s sense of smell is 40 times stronger making this ability a powerful tool in fighting crime. A dog’s nose is even used to detect electronic media such as thumb drives that may hold child pornography/exploitation or leads to terror activities.
But because of public outrage regarding the deadly use of force by some police officers against citizens of color, calls for defunding the police are echoing across the country. What about police dog units? Should funding for these programs be studied and adjusted? Looking back through history, people of color have been consistently victimized by dogs who were trained to attack, injure and even kill.
During the time of slavery, “negro dogs” were used to seek and capture escaped slaves. These dogs were trained to brutalize and kill their prey similar to the way in which fox hunters train their dogs today. A person running from these dogs was given no mercy. The dog’s handlers were known to allow their dogs to kill and maul a man to pieces (Franklin, Runaway Slaves, p160). Once slavery had ended, the Ku Klux Klan continued the practice of using dogs to intimidate and attack those to whom they directed their hate.
In 1963, protests against segregation in schools in Birmingham, Alabama elicited large protests often led by the students themselves. The website Civil Rights Teaching in an article titled The Children’s Crusade describes how high school students were met by high-pressure water hoses, menacing police dogs, and angry whites. In Mississippi, a mass demonstration by people demanding the right to register to vote was forced to brave club-wielding police and barking police dogs.
Recently during a Black Lives Matter (BLM)protest in Walnut Creek, California, the apprehension of Joseph Malott, a 22-year old Black man, involved a K9 police unit that left Malott with a scratched back and bites on his leg requiring stitches. According to the Mercury News, Malott was riding his bike when he joined a nearby protest. The group marched onto a freeway, stopping traffic. To break up the mass of bodies, police fired rubber bullets, flashbangs, and tear gas. Malott allegedly picked up a canister of tear gas and lobbed it back towards the police officers. According to Malott, he was quickly apprehended, and even though he was face-down on the ground, a police dog latched onto his leg.
Historically the intentional use of dogs against Black people has helped to ingrain in the cultural psyche an extreme fear of dogs which to this day may be exploited by people in power, namely the police. It is stunning to recognize how different the perceptions white people have towards police dogs compared to Black people. A white person upon seeing a K9 unit may react with the desire to pet the dog even though the dog is clearly identified as a working dog who must not be approached. Whereas a Black person may have a visceral reaction of fear and retreat in the presence of a police dog. Such an example screams systemic racism - given the same scenario, the color of one’s skin determines such radically different responses.
President Donald Trump reopened the wounds of racial oppression and its use of dogs by his statements to would-be protesters trying to breach the walls of the White House. Trump tweeted, “they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least.” His effort to instill fear elicited outrage from people familiar with the historical and cultural imagery of attack dogs against people of color.
Today the rallying cry to defund the police of its military-style procedures, weapons, and equipment may well encompass K9 units. At the very least, attention should be paid to how these units are utilized during BLM protests. Typically, a police dog’s response to a crime in progress involves chasing and apprehending a suspect. While peaceful protests can sometimes have a chaotic and unmanaged feel, the presence of K9 units at these events is for the most part excessive.
Taking into account the historical use of dogs against people of color, police departments should reevaluate sending K9 units into BLM protest events. Perhaps the dollars used to train K9 units to chase and apprehend suspects should instead be allocated to more nonviolent canine work. Keep these talented dogs working where their nose knows more than we do. The answer may be to continue funding police K9 units only in areas that train dogs to use their talents — detecting and locating criminal activity, contraband, and missing persons.
In future years, perceptions of police dogs as fang-bearing, barking, biting beasts could morph into awe-inspiring agents of public good. Watching a contraband sniffing beagle in the baggage area of an airport’s International terminal will provide a sense of security and goodwill. The day may come when the idea of K9 units tormenting peaceful protesters will be seen as outrageous as the high-powered water hoses used during the early ’60s.