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SHERIFF'S K-9 POLICY AT ISSUE BITES SPARK CONCERN ABOUT POSSIBLE PROFILING.

Byline: Troy Anderson Staff Writer

A county special counsel on Friday urged the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department to conduct a study addressing possible racial profiling in the use of its police dogs, citing that African-Americans and Latinos accounted for 83 percent of the people bitten last year.

According to the Sheriff's 18th Semiannual report released Friday, the counsel also indicated that the sheriff canine unit's ratio of dog bites when suspects were apprehended rose sharply in the past few years. The analysis issued by Merrick Bobb, special counsel to the Board of Supervisors, urged the sheriff to determine whether deputies are more likely to request a canine deployment when apprehending minority suspects, or if deputies patrolling high-crime areas - often associated with large, poor minority populations - are more likely to ask for the canine unit's help.

``We recommend that such a study be undertaken and the results examined with dispassion and care,'' Bobb wrote in the report. ``The whole subject of racial profiling is heavily emotion-laden and analytically complex.''

Bobb said in the report that relatively inexperienced managers in the canine unit may be too timid to assert strong control over the dog handlers, resulting in the increase in people being bitten.

He also said he believed the department ``does not practice overt bias,'' but he had difficulty understanding why such a ``troubling'' percentage of minorities are bitten.

``This is not to say that the department is engaging in racial profiling,'' Bobb wrote. ``The kinds of crimes the Sheriff's Department can best handle are linked to poverty, unemployment, lack of education, street drugs, gangs and inadequate social services, all of which, in large urban settings, disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities.''

According to the report, the department's Canine Services Detail's ``bite ratio'' - the percentage of suspect apprehensions that result in a dog bite - hit a high of 27 percent in 1991 and fell to a low of 8 percent in 1998.

But the percentage more than doubled to 17 percent in 1999 after a ban was lifted on using the dogs to catch car theft suspects.

From 1999 it dropped to 12 percent in 2001, then went back up to 17 percent last year, and jumped to 23 percent in the first six months of this year.

Jim Lafferty, director of the National Lawyer's Guild and chairman of the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Police Accountability, said the canine unit record reminds him of racial profiling in traffic stops.

``It's not that the canine unit is telling their officers to sic dogs on people of color, but in practice that is what is happening and has been happening for a long period of time,'' he said.

``This is a result of a lack of education and lack of racial sensitivity training. We simply know that most of us, white, black or otherwise, have a certain amount of racism in our souls, and if there is not training to counteract the racism that exists in our society, more people of color will be bitten by the dogs.''

The sheriff's canine unit consists of 10 German shepherds and Belgian Malinois, 10 deputy canine handlers, three sergeants and a lieutenant. The dogs are often called out in the middle of the night to search for armed suspects hiding in labyrinthine warehouses, debris-strewn back yards or in pitch-black wilderness areas.

While the bite ratio has hit recent highs, Bobb noted that the number of dog deployments has dropped from 680 in 2001 to 576 last year and the number of suspects arrested also dropped from 185 to 174.

Even though the dogs had fewer chances to bite suspects in the past two years, they have bitten people more often, with 30 bites in 2003, the highest number since 1995.

Bobb said the best explanation behind the increase is that many of the unit supervisors are relatively new and inexperienced.

``It is possible that recent changes in supervisory staff have resulted in a looser supervision of canine handlers with a resulting increase in bites,'' Bobb wrote.

Bobb wrote it was difficult to establish racial bias as the cause of the large percentage of minorities bitten, noting that the canine unit is racially diverse.

Bobb's investigators monitored hours of radio traffic to find out if the unit knew of the race of a suspect at the time it decided to deploy the dogs and found in most cases the suspect's race was not known.

But he wrote that the handlers are given a description of the suspect in order to conduct the search and it was much more difficult to assess whether race played a role in the decision to release the dog.

In conclusion, Bobb recommended the department explore alternatives to the use of the dogs in apprehending hidden suspects, including wider use of Clear-Out gas - a combination of pepper spray and another gas - and night vision technology.

Troy Anderson, (213) 974-8985

troy.anderson(at)dailynews.com
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 14, 2004
Words:821
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