When Police Dogs Grow Too Vicious

Louis Azurdia accidentally set off an alarm while working to remove asbestos from a school in 1997. A canine police unit was dispatched to the school, and Azurdia was attacked by a dog.

After being arrested and treated for his wounds — and then not charged with any crimes — Azurdia sued and received an undisclosed settlement.

When Willie Walker was arrested in 1997, he was repeatedly bitten by a police dog. Though he was found to be guilty of no crimes, he was seriously injured and suffered permanent disfigurement.

Esther Vathekan was asleep in her own bed in 1995 when police say she was mistaken for a burglar. Her face was mauled by police dogs.

All three incidents took place in Prince George's County, Md., about 25 minutes from Washington, D.C. The dogs, often 110-pound German shepherds, are the county's trained police canines. But according to press accounts, approximately 1,300 people have been attacked since 1987, making these police dogs — which are supposedly under the control of officers — the most dangerous canine unit in the country.

The department has been the target of federal civil rights investigations, with the FBI initiating 33 criminal investigations since 1999. A Downtown investigation shows that problems may still persist, despite reports of change.

"The police dog is a very valuable asset," said James Fyfe, a former New York City police officer who tracks alleged police misconduct nationally. "But when they're misused, they're awful."

And like all weapons, their misuse can lead to devastating consequences.

"Unlike a police gun, a dog never misses," said Fyfe, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "They're very, very serious … They've torn out bicep muscles, tricep muscles, torn noses and ears off and really left maiming injuries."

According to Fyfe, the problems with the dogs of Prince George's County is really a problem with the officers who handle them. In some cases, he said, the officers use the dogs as a four-legged form of excessive force.

"I had never encountered a situation quite like P.G. before," he said of Prince George's County. "The professionalism and training of the dogs is not there."

‘The Dog’s Job Is Not to Torture’

Julius Booker would certainly agree. In October 1997, he abandoned an allegedly stolen van and attempted to flee on foot from canine officer Anthony Mileo and his dog, King. Boker said that even after he was caught and handcuffed, the dog bit him repeatedly.

"He [Mileo] let the dog continue to bite me," said Booker in a taped deposition. "[I] couldn't do nothing, I was handcuffed face to the dirt, crying, begging for mercy."

Sharon Weidenfeld, a private investigator who's been looking into police dog bites for more than 10 years, worked on Booker's case.

"They're justified in letting the dog go after somebody that has fled," she said of canine officers. "But the dog's job is not to torture somebody once the dog catches him."

Weidenfeld said that in most of her cases, including Booker's, "The police officers aren't in danger when the people are bitten." Booker, she said, was running from a stolen van, which is not a violent crime. "He's not doing anything to the police officer, and they're just letting the dog bite him and bite him."

Booker was acquitted of all charges in the case. He sued the county and received a cash settlement, though the county admitted no liability.

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