The Controversial Issue of Police Dogs
In the last two weeks there has been a lot of discussion in the lower mainland about police dogs, and more specifically about an incident involving a bus, a police dog and one of our clients, Christopher Evans. Mr. Evans has elected to work with us to file a civil suit against the Vancouver Police Department in an effort to change the way police dogs are trained and deployed.
It’s an emotional issue that was intensified just a few days after Mr. Evans served his lawsuit when the family of a youth in Surrey went public with images of the young man after an RCMP police dog apprehended him by biting him in the face, breaking his nose and leaving deep scars.
The same week, the media reported that an RCMP constable and dog handler from Kelowna was convicted of assault for using his dog and punching a man during a confrontation outside a bar. A lot of people were surprised by the flood of stories, one after another, imagining that cases of serious injury involving police dogs were few and far between. Unfortunately, the limited statistics available on injuries involving police dogs suggest that we have a problem, and that this reality has been staring at us in for the face for some time now.
In both these cases the portrayal of the incidents in the media have made it tempting to dismiss the complaints of the bitten, as for many the first reaction is that a person who elects to commit a crime gets what they deserve. But taking that route cuts out two of the most important elements of our democracy, proportionality and the presumption of innocence. Remember Scott Phillipo, who was mauled by a police dog during an interaction with a police officer who thought he was stealing what turned out to be his own bike? Six months ago we used his case to make our case about the need for changes to the way police dogs are trained and used, and despite his innocence the police still didn’t think there was a problem.
At Pivot Legal Society all our work is centered around the principles of democracy, fairness, and the rule of law. One of those principles is the right to a fair trial. In practice, that means punishment for an offence can only be doled out by a Judge who is entrusted with a duty to weigh the need for both rehabilitation and deterrence and who is guided by a constitutional restriction on the use of cruel and unusual punishment.
Waiting for the justice system to take its course is not always gratifying. It can be frustrating to watch a youth who broke into your home walk away with want seems to be light sentence or to see cases thrown out because of delays and technicalities rather than because the accused proved his case. That, however, is not the fault of the accused but of a government which as continually taken some of our most hallowed institutions for granted. The rules that protect people we often define as ‘bad guys’ from arbitrary punishment also protect each and every one of us, our children and every friend or family member we know who has at some point had a run in with the law. The Kelowna RCMP constable and dog handler who was convicted of assault for use of excessive force just over a week ago will likely be looking for understanding and leniency from the Judge just as much as any other person would when he appears for his sentencing in April.
After 5 years as a lawyer, I have seen first hand that the line between the criminal and the law-abiding is rarely black and white, especially when drugs and alcohol are involved. Over the last two years I have seen multiple people walk through our doors with extensive dog bite wounds, and have talked to dozens who have been bitten themselves or are the parents of a child who will never be the same. Seeing this reality, and the lifelong consequences, has led us to feel very strongly about the following conclusion:
Using police dogs, or any other weapon, except where the public safety would be genuinely endangered by a failure to act, or when there are no other viable options available to the officer eliminates one of the core principles of the justice system, proportionality.
When a judge passes sentence they must consider the gravity of the offence, but a police dog does not have that option. Over the last two years the stories we have heard have been shocking: an 18 year old who was bitten by a police dog and scarred for life after shoplifting a sandwich, a surrey man who was arrested for failing to pay for a DVD from a rental store and left his encounter with an RCMP police dog missing an ear after the dog attacked his head. A youth who was mauled a police dog after the group of friends he was with covered a police cruiser with silly string.
After announcing Mr. Evan’s civil suit the VPD deviated from their typical “no-comment” approach, and responded by releasing a video of Mr. Evan’s committing the offence he was arrested for, angrily breaking a bus window. There was no one in our office that didn’t feel for the driver and everyone else on that bus, but it did not in any way change our conviction to bring this case forward. Mr. Evans committed a crime, he admits that, but the charges were ultimately stayed in spite of the clear video evidence because of the near life-threatening injuries he sustained. In this case justice was not, by any measure, served.
It would be easy to pass these recent cases off as isolated incidents, but like it or not we are going to be faced with this issue again soon. Last week the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner confirmed that the Vancouver Police Department has had at least 122 incidents within the last 2 years where a police dog made contact with a suspect and caused injuries severe enough that they warranted hospitalization. VPD dog squad related injuries are averaging more than one hospitalization a week, and we should all be thinking about the cases we haven’t heard about and the inevitable ones yet to come if changes don’t happen quick.
We have fought hard to ensure that everyone has the right to a fair trial. We strongly believe in an end to corporal punishment and for restrictions on the use of force by police. A broken bus window, a sandwich stolen, or a bunch of kids with silly string are not going to destroy our society, but an erosion of the principles of democracy just might.