Taking a Bite Out of Crime? Flaws in Police Dog Unit Ignored

April 6, 1999 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Police and elected officials in Prince George’s County have had plenty of warning about allegations of excessive force leveled against the department’s canine unit and failed to act on them, the Washington Post reported today.

The 13 civil lawsuits currently pending against the police department’s canine unit in Prince George’s Circuit Court and in U.S. District Court should have warned county and police officials that there was a potential problem with excessive force on the department’s 23-officer canine team, Arthur B. Spitzer, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area, told the paper.

“The fact that these incidents have continued over a number of years seems to say that the county government at the highest levels doesn’t seem to care very much,” Spitzer said. “That’s very serious to me and very disturbing.”

The allegations contained in those lawsuits, as well as five other suits that have been resolved with settlements or a verdict for the plaintiff, were detailed by the Post. The lawsuits charged that the powerful police dogs often bite people repeatedly; in 10 of the suits, people said they were attacked even though they were on the ground or handcuffed and were not resisting arrest.

The Post’s search of court records found that eight of 18 pending or recently resolved lawsuits named three current or former members of the canine unit.

Some county elected officials told the paper that they were not surprised that the canine unit is alleged to have engaged in excessive force, adding that they welcomed the forthcoming FBI investigation that the ACLU helped to prompt.

“I believe there’s always been an excessive force problem with the Prince George’s County police department,” state Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Prince George’s) told the Post.

According to The Post, the FBI investigation — which was opened at the request of the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division — will be probing for civil, not criminal, violations and no specific county is being targeted. However, a spokesperson from the DOJ told The Post that criminal charges could arise depending on the results of the investigation.

At the request of D.C. police officials, the Justice Department is also conducting a similar civil investigation of the city’s department. That request came after a series of articles by The Post last year found that D.C. police officers shot people more often than officers in other large departments.

The Post’s investigation also found that the department had paid millions of dollars in recent years after civil juries found the department liable for excessive force, or to settle such lawsuits.

As complaints against the police officers continue to rise across the country, ACLU affiliates are devising new public education and activism strategies.

The New York Civil Liberties Union created a Campaign to Stop Police Brutality Task Force and recently beefed up its ranks with the addition of former police whistleblower Frank Serpico.

The ACLU has also investigated police brutality cases in other states including Rhode Island and Denver.

Source: The Washington Post, April 4 and 6, 1999

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