01/13/2008

Attacks on K-9s on the rise

Police dogs' duty more dangerous in San Diego

By Michael Stetz
San Diego Union-Tribune
Related: Calif. suspect leaps off bridge with police dog

OCEANSIDE, Calif. — Being a K-9 officer is no dog's life. It's tough, demanding and sometimes deadly.

Take Stryker. The Oceanside Police Department dog recently died in the line of duty – and he wasn't the first.

In the course of their work, police dogs have been shot. They've been knifed. They've been clubbed.

In San Diego County, few police dogs have died, but attacks on them appear to be rising nationwide, said the president of a national police-dog organization. Not only do they face angry criminals, the dogs also die from heat-related stress while doing their jobs.

Stryker was sent after a drunken-driving suspect who had stopped his truck on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge on New Year's Eve.

That's what police dogs are called to do at times: Go get the bad guy. Dogs run fast. They're powerful. They're fearless. They'll go into burning buildings, run-down drug houses, flowing rivers.

Stryker bit and then dragged down the suspect, Cory Byron, 27, who got up, allegedly grabbed the 6½-year-old Belgian Malinois and jumped.

It was 200 feet down. Byron survived; Stryker didn't.

While its circumstances were unusual, the death wasn't out of the ordinary.

“There's been an increase in violence against dogs of late,” said Ben Bennett, president of the North American Police Work Dog Association.

“It used to be, attacks on police dogs rarely happened,” he said. “Now we're seeing more (people) fighting back and trying to injure the dogs.”

Bennett thinks society has become more violent in general. Drugs also fuel such attacks, he believes, adding, “And people obviously don't want to get arrested.”

Byron was fished out of the water and arrested. The Vista man is now at UCSD Medical Center with a collapsed lung. From his hospital bed, he pleaded not guilty Tuesday to evading police and abusing a service animal.

Byron's attorney, Anthony Solare, said he has yet to review the specifics in the case, but speaking generally: “It's a stressful event for the person who has the dog set against him. It's a very intense experience.”

No government body tracks the number of police dogs killed or injured in the line of duty nationally, police-dog experts say. So many law enforcement agencies – from local police departments to the U.S. Border Patrol to customs – employ them that it's hard to compile statistics.

In San Diego County, the last police dog to die in the line of duty before Stryker was Urk, a Sheriff's Department dog who was gunned down in January 2003. His handler was responding to a call that shots had been fired when someone shot at the squad car, killing the dog.

The shooter, Robert Quintero, was found guilty of attempted murder of the deputy and sentenced to life in prison. The dog's heroic action – he tried to go after the gunman despite being shot – was noted during the sentencing hearing. The maximum sentence for killing a police dog is three years.

The San Diego Police Department's dogs have had their share of injuries, too. In 2002, a man with a knife nearly sliced off the ear of a police dog named Gino. The wound required nearly 100 stitches.

Only one dog in the San Diego department has died on duty. In 1994, Bando was killed while searching a canyon for a homicide suspect. He got through a hole in a fence and was struck by a car on a ramp leading to state Route 163.

“Sometimes people do try and fight back,” said San Diego police Lt. Cary Brooks, who heads the city's police-dog unit. He said that's not wise, as it only riles up the dogs more.

“They're like, 'Come on – bring it on,' ” Brooks said.

Police dogs are also vulnerable to death from heat stress, said Russ Hess, executive director of the U.S. Police Canine Association. Every year, police dogs die from being left in squad cars or working in sweltering conditions, he said. As with deaths from encounters with criminals, no agency tracks the number of heat-related deaths, Hess said.

In 2006, a Utah Highway Patrol police dog died after being left alone in a car, even though the air conditioning had been left running as a precaution. The car overheated and began sending dry air through the cruiser.

Such losses can be traumatic to the handlers.

The Oceanside police officer paired with Stryker, Kendrick Sadler, still doesn't want to talk to the media about the loss of the dog, who's being honored with a memorial service at Camp Pendleton tomorrow.

The pain Sadler is experiencing is all too familiar to San Diego County sheriff's Sgt. Daniel Settle, who was Urk's handler.

“You spend more time with them than with your family,” Settle said.

He and Sadler have talked almost daily since Stryker's death. It also brought back memories for Settle, who had worked with Urk four years.

“You put your heart and soul into training them,” he said.

Police dogs once had an ominous reputation. In the 1960s, they were used often for crowd control, and some of the images of their work are haunting.

In 1963, The New York Times ran a front-page photo of a German shepherd police dog attacking a high school student during a civil rights demonstration in Birmingham, Ala.

That work was inappropriate for the dogs, said Hess of the U.S. Canine Association. Dogs today are rarely used for crowd control, he said.

More and more, police are taking advantage of dogs' ability to pick up scents. A growing number are cross-trained, meaning they go on patrol but also have other abilities, such as sniffing out bombs or drugs.

It's hard to argue against the use of dogs in police work, Hess said. They have rare skills and save lives. They'll risk their lives so their human partners can be spared, he said. They also can prevent the use of deadly force, he believes.

“You can't call back a bullet,” Hess said. “Once it's out of the chamber, it's gone. You can call back a dog.”

The dogs aren't pets, he added. They're trained to perform tough duty, not play fetch. Nor should they be confused with attack or guard dogs.

“You don't want a dog that's mean or uncontrollable,” Hess said. “These dogs won't indiscriminately attack.”

The death of Stryker no doubt will be analyzed to see if it was appropriate for the dog to be sent onto a towering bridge, Hess said. In his 35 years working with police dogs, he has never heard of a similar death.

“You try and glean some kind of training information from such tragic incidents,” Hess said.

Copyright 2008 San Diego Tribune
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