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.

No disciplinary action was taken against Mileo, who has since been transferred out of the unit. In court documents, Mileo estimated that in a six-year period, his dog bit 30 to 40 people — 15 seriously enough to be admitted to the hospital.

Civil Rights and Excessive Force Complaints

Police say that most dog bites occur during the course of legitimate arrests, when a canine unit is called to help locate or apprehend a suspect. But Downtown found many cases when the victim was guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"I looked over and saw this dog coming at me full force," said Gregory Chandler, a county police officer who was pursuing a suspect when one of Prince George's County's police dogs ran toward him.

"All I could do was stick out my arm, and he grabbed hold the arm," said Chandler. "The dog wouldn't let go."

Kheenen Sneed also thought he had no reason to be bitten. He was asleep in a hammock behind his house while, unbeknownst to him, police were pursuing a burglary suspect in the area. He was violently awakened and thrown out of the hammock by canine unit officer Stephanie Mohr and her dog.

Sneed filed a lawsuit against Mohr, who was eventually prosecuted by the Department of Justice. Last December, Mohr resigned after being found guilty of deprivation of rights. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Mohr is appealing her verdict.

Critics say Mohr was prosecuted by the Department of Justice because the county is unable or unwilling to discipline its officers.

"That's totally wrong," said John Farrell, Prince George's County police chief. "We've dismissed probably close to 80 officers since I've been here … We have thousands of sustained complaints where action has been taken."

In 1996, Farrell was hired to reform the department, which had a reputation for using excessive force. Since then, he says, bites are way down. By July 2001, all 14 dogs in the unit were replaced. Instead of being trained to "bite and hold," the new dogs had been instructed to "guard and bark," he said. So now, as long as the subject stays still, the dog is trained only to bark rather than bite.

Police Chief Resigns

But in January, there was a report of an incident at a gas station where a canine unit officer allegedly allowed his dog to unnecessarily maul a suspect. The complaint came not from the person allegedly attacked, but from a fellow police officer on the scene. The county police and FBI are looking into it.

"I am convinced of one thing: What we've got in place here right now will serve the community well in the future," said Farrell.

But he will not be the police chief if and when that happens, because he resigned on Feb. 12.

"Now is a good opportunity for me to spend more time with my family and to pursue other interests," Farrell wrote in his resignation letter. He will, however, be staying with the department as a consultant.

The new police chief, Lt. Col. Gerald Wilson, who started six days ago in Prince George's County, has promised to rebuild the trust of the community — just as his predecessor did.