Today, November 27, 2014, the Provincial Government announced the introduction of new regulations on the use of police dogs in B.C. They are the first of their kind in Canada, and the result of years of campaigning on our end. After releasing our report on police dogs, Moving to Minimum Force, earlier this year, we have patiently waited for the results of the provincial working group that was mandated to look at training and deployment of police dogs in B.C. Pivot called on that working group to address the many concerns we have about police dog use (for more on the results of the report and its findings check out our news release here). Here are what the regulations mean for British Columbians:
Of perhaps greatest importance is the fact that the regulations bring in a much needed proportionality analysis to police dog deployment. Police officers will be expressly prohibited from deploying a dog against someone who is not hiding or fleeing, unless they present an immediate risk of grievous bodily harm to the officer or a third party, and when a dog is used to track and locate an individual the officer must balance a number of factors in determining whether or not the deployment of the dog is appropriate. These include the severity of the crime suspected of being committed, whether or not the subject is a youth, and the potential for innocent bystanders to be injured. The regulations also say that at all times an officer must be in control of their dog, and should only take their dogs off of their leash when it is absolutely necessary. These may seem like elements of common sense, but as our report documented this analysis has been shockingly lacking in B.C.'s deployment of police dogs.
The new regulations introduce standards of training which must be met by every department, and if a dog fails to release a bite on command, or refuses a handler's command not to bite a subject in training, they will be barred from entering service. This is an important guideline and eliminates the ability for a department to say "we'll work on this" while continuing to use the dog in service. While the training standards will help ensure basic levels of competence for dogs, this is one area where we believe the province could have gone further. Our research suggests that some departments employ the "Bark and Hold" method of training, and have significantly lower rates of bites and hospitalizations to show for it. Departments who employ the more aggressive "Bite and Hold" method of training often cite the high amount of training and effort that goes into training a dog in the "Bark and Hold" method. We believe that the people of B.C. deserve the highest standard of police training, and if best practices exist they should be applied across the board.
Record Keeping and Statistics
Up to this point there were no regulations on how a department would record a dog bite incident, or how they tracked the number of bites they were responsible for. In one of our cases it was revealed that the RCMP would not even draft a use of force report if the dog bit an innocent bystander or the wrong subject. The new provincial regulations not only create a standardized definition of what a police dog "deployment" is, but it requires each department to track how many bites an individual handler/dog team are responsible for, as well as the total number for the department's entire dog squad. This will make it much easier to compare each department in the future, and will allow the provincial government to step in if a department is recording significantly higher rates of bites than others. As our report proves, it was previously left entirely to civil society groups like ours to file FOI requests and dig for records to hold police departments to account on their use of police dogs.
Dogs as Weapons
Another area that Pivot had called for change in, which was not adopted in the regulations, is the way that we classify and view police dogs as intermediate weapons. The regulations continue to allow departments to use the dogs for promotional and demonstration purposes (although they suggest the dogs can no longer be used for fundraising), and place no restrictions on the use of dogs as first responders. In our opinion police dogs should be seen as a speciality tool, and only brought to a scene if required. The ability for dog squad officers to respond to a call and arrive first with their police dogs has led to numerous incidents where the dog was used to arrest an individual before communication or lesser means of force were attempted.
Overall we see today as a day to celebrate. After years of hard work the stories and statistics we have uncovered on the use of police dogs, particularly against vulnerable and marginalized populations, have been heard and acted upon. While this is a good first step down the long path of police accountability, we will continue to campaign for best practices in police dog use, and will continue to advance cases where we feel the police department's practices require scrutiny.