Community Police Review Commission about K-9 policy
Weeks after this news organization’s examination of records revealed that Richmond Police Department’s canines injured 73 people through their bites the past six years — more than half of all injuries reported — a police monitoring group discussed the article’s findings but did not call for any changes in protocol.
In a special meeting Wednesday, Richmond’s Community Police Review Commission, which has the authority to investigate allegations of excessive or unreasonable use of force by the department, reviewed the news report and the department’s use of police dogs.
Many of the commissioners questioned the rate and severity of the injuries, expressing frustration that the bites never came to light in previous meetings.
But police officials who attended the meeting defended the use of K-9 units, arguing that dog bites are less lethal options in apprehending criminals than gunfire.
Acting police Chief Louie Tirona said that only 45 people were bitten out of the 620 times police dogs were brought out since 2018, accounting for 7% of all interactions.
While he was amenable to additional study sessions on his officers’ use of police dogs, he complained that the data in the news report did not paint a comprehensive picture of all canine activities and instead focused solely on violent incidents.
“We do believe our use of canines are well within the best practices within the industry,” Tirona said. “I regret every bite that occurs, but every one of these has a warning that is preceded, and I want the subjects who are wanted for crimes to submit.”
After being sued by the Bay Area News Group and its media partners, the police department released records that showed it caused significant injuries 122 times over a six-year period, and dogs accounted for more than half. On average, police dogs violently apprehended one suspect every month since 2014.
An analysis of the records also showed that police dogs were four times more likely to cause great bodily injury than Tasers — one of the department’s other most common types of force. And out of 65 police reports that noted race, more than half of the people bitten were described as Black, despite accounting for only 20% of Richmond’s population.
Still, Richmond Police Officers Association president Benjamin Therriault did not mince words in criticizing the Bay Area News Group’s article, describing it as a “hit piece” crafted to “create a hysteria.”
“Over six years, to have that number of dog bites is actually low—that’s incredibly low,” Therriault said, adding that his own arm was “filleted” years ago from a police dog bite, requiring 20 stitches. “These comparisons were hyperboles on a statistical level. I think we’d rather have (dog bites) than shoot people, which would absolutely happen. The use of dogs has been a life saver, and it shouldn’t be an overblown reaction, especially when the RPD was the one that released information, which created that issue.”
This news organization’s investigative report pointed out that Richmond, which has one of the oldest police canine programs in California, posts higher dog-bite totals than the largest American cities. From 2017 to 2019, for example, Richmond reported 38 dog bites compared to 25 in New York City — with 80 times the population — five in Washington, D.C. and one in Chicago.
Randy Joseph, who chairs the Community Police Review Commission, said he was less concerned about the news article than about the disconnect and lack of conversation about such events when they occur.
“The fact that someone from outside the community has to sue the city to find out what was done, I think that’s where the failure is,” Joseph said. “The PD didn’t share it with us first. If you want us to come together, come to us and say, ‘We’re not perfect,’ and have public participation. The community is going to be concerned about this, and they want to be a part of how they are being policed.”
While one of the commission’s duties is to review the police department’s practices and polices and provide advice to the City Council, city manager and police chief, it used Wednesday’s meeting to generate a discussion of the dog bite issue but didn’t recommend any action.
However, the commission did discuss the possibility of changing the definition of “serious bodily injury” from requiring 72 hours of continuous hospitalization to any at all. The distinction is important because cases involving serious bodily injuries must be brought to its attention.
Commissioner Marisol Cantu lamented that people injured by dog bites didn’t participate in the discussion, arguing theirs would be important voices to gauge the need for changing practices.
“I would like to ask the victims if they were abused,” Cantu said. “Would they like to see more transformative justice? I would like to see the CPSC call for more change, and center the people who have been most harmed.”