Patriot K-9





Police Canines, The Use of Force, and The Department of Justice

Part One

  Canines have been used in police work since 1907 when the New York City Police Department became the first law enforcement agency in the United States to formally train and use police canines. By the beginning of 1960, dozens of law enforcement agencies, from Buffalo, New York to Salt Lake City, Utah had established canine units (Wall, 2016). According to Chapman (1990) there were 7,000 canines working in hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country by 1990. The number of canines in those agencies ranged from as many as 125 canines in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Police Department to as few as one canine in numerous agencies across the United States (Chapman, 1990). One of the reasons police canines have become very popular in law enforcement agencies across the country is due to their unique capability to be used as a locating tool. Their ability to be used as a locating tool is possible because of their powerful sense of smell. Secondly, they are the only tool available to the police which can be stopped once deployed and which cannot be used against an officer should a suspect gain control of it. Finally, police canines have the ability to de-escalate possible use of force situations by their presence while also being capable of being used as a use of force tool (Fleck, n.d.).

          Two important use of force cases which have been decided by the United States Supreme Court are Tennessee v. Garner (1985) and Graham v. Connor (1989). While neither of the cases involved police canines specifically, both cases had an effect on police use of force, including the use of canines. The first case, Tennessee v. Garner (1985), dealt with the use of deadly force in apprehension of a fleeing felony suspect. In this case, a Memphis police officer shot a felony suspect as he ran from the scene of a burglary.  Although the Tennessee Supreme Court held that the officer’s actions were reasonable under the current Tennessee state law, the United States Supreme Court held that it is unreasonable, and therefore unconstitutional, to use deadly force against every fleeing felon in every circumstance. The Justices ruled that in order for an officer to be justified in using deadly force in the apprehension of a fleeing felon, the police must have “probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a ‘significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others’”  (Sloman, 2004.).

            The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that we are to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Due to the court’s ruling in Graham v. Connor (1989), all claims against law enforcement for excessive use of force are Fourth Amendment issues (Ross, 2002). Prior to Graham v Connor (1989), police use of force was a concern in America, however, there were mixed opinions on how excessive use of force claims should be handled by lower federal courts. Some courts held that such cases should be dealt with using the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees all free citizens due process. Using this doctrine, the courts reasoned that individuals have a due process right to “be free from an unreasonable and unwarranted violation of their physical integrity by police officers, even in the course of an otherwise valid arrest” (Ross, 2002, p. 297).  Other courts used the “shock the conscience” test which was birthed in Rochin v. California (1952). In Rochin, the court decided that due process prohibits the government from any actions which would “shock the conscience” of the public. This doctrine is faulty in that it depends on determining subjective factors such as intent and motivation (Ross, 2002, p. 297).

            The decision by the Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor (1989) had a wide reaching impact on use of force by the government. It also cleared the previous controversy within the lower federal courts. There could no longer be differing opinions as to which amendment to apply to excessive use of force claims, as the “shock the conscience” test no longer applied. In the Graham v. Connor (1989) decision, the Supreme Court laid out a new standard of measuring the government’s use of force against free citizens. The objectively reasonable standard analyzes whether or not another reasonable person would deem the actions of a government agent justified if that person were in the same or similar circumstances equipped with the same or similar information as the government agent. The standard measures the reasonableness of the use of force intrusion upon a free citizen’s Fourth Amendment interests against the “countervailing governmental interests at stake” (Ross, 2002, p. 300).

            The Graham v. Connor (1989) decision took into account “the unpredictable and rapidly evolving dynamics” of the use of force environment (Ross, 2002, p. 301). The question to be considered in use of force cases is no longer the intent or motivation of the actor, as they were when applying the “shock the conscience” doctrine. In the Graham v. Connor (1989) decision, the question was whether or not the officer’s actions were objectively reasonable given the “facts and circumstances confronting them” at the time of the incident (Ross, 2002, p. 301). The Supreme Court stated that there was no set definition for what is objectively reasonable. However, when considering the question of objective reasonableness one should consider “the fact that officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the degree of force to use in a particular situation” (Ross, 2002, p. 301).  The Supreme Court also developed a test for officers in use of force situations. The test is based upon three factors which are, the severity of the crime at issue, whether or not the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers or the public, and whether the suspect is actively resisting or evading arrest (Ross, 2002). Police canine handlers must also consider these factors when using their canines as a use of force tool.

            Other important cases did involve the direct use of police canines as a use of force.  One such case was Robinette v. Barnes (1988).  In this case a Nashville, Tennessee police canine killed a burglary suspect.  The suspect had broken into a car dealership and was hiding under a car when the canine located him. The canine bit the suspect in the neck. The court decided that since canine deployments rarely lead to death, their use cannot be considered deadly force. The court also stated that the totality of the circumstances must be considered when officers are deciding whether or not, and to what degree, to use force (Savage, 1996). In Kerr v. City of West Palm Beach (1989), the United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh District, ruled that the West Palm Beach Police Department failed to both train and supervise their canine handlers and their police canines. Since the police department failed to properly train their canines and handlers, non-violent misdemeanants and innocent people were bitten by police canines. Failing to supervise canine handlers resulted in poorly trained police canines not receiving the corrective training which was needed to ensure proper performance (Fleck, n.d.). These cases impacted police use of force whether or not a police canine was involved. Within our criminal justice system, a single event can have far reaching ramifications. Such an event occurred in August, 2014.

In our next article, I will briefly examine the Department of Justice’s report on the Ferguson Police Department’s K-9 Unit. Their report was erroneous and irresponsible. Keep training like your life depends on it.  It does.



Chapman, S. G. (1990). Police Dogs in North America. Springfield, Ill., U.S.A.: Charles C Thomas.

Fleck, T. (n.d.). Canine legal update and opinions. Retrieved April 19, 2018, from

Ross, D. L. (2002). An assessment of Graham v. Connor, ten years later. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 25(2), 294-318. doi:10.1108/13639510210429383

Wall, T. (2016). “For the very existence of civilization”: The police dog and racial terror. American Quarterly, 68(4), 861-882. doi:10.1353/aq.2016.0070



Police Canines, The Use of Force, and The Department of Justice
Part Two

The use of police canines in the United States was indirectly brought to the forefront by the Department of Justice.  On August 9, 2014 Ferguson, Missouri Police Department Officer
Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Officer Wilson is white. Michael Brown, who died from injuries sustained in the shooting, was black (Chaney, 2015). The incident, and the immediate aftermath, sparked national outrage. It also caused the United States Department of Justice to investigate the Ferguson Police Department and municipal court system. The Department of Justice released its report on March 4, 2015.

The Department of Justice reported that the Ferguson Police Department had demonstrated a “pattern of unlawful conduct, which violates the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and federal statutory law” (DOJ, 2015, p. 1). Data was collected from the police department’s own records for a two year period from 2012 to 2014. During that time, African Americans made up 67% of Ferguson’s population. They were the drivers of 85% of vehicles stopped by FPD officers, received 90% of the tickets written by the FPD, made up 93% of the total arrests, and, according to the DOJ, were twice as likely to be searched by the police. Of all of the use of force cases in the police department from 2012-2014, African Americans were involved 90% of the time (DOJ, 2015).

The Department of Justice asserted that their investigation led to undeniable proof that the Ferguson Police Department and the Ferguson municipal court system engage in “…unlawful bias against and stereotypes about African Americans. “We have found substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson” (DOJ, 2015, p.5). The report continues by stating that such conduct is in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Because of such violations, the DOJ asserted that there is a strong distrust of the police department among Ferguson residents and that distrust is built upon “unnecessarily aggressive and, at times, unlawful policing…” (DOJ, 2015, p. 5).

At the time of the DOJ report the FPD had four canines. The agency utilized a canine and handler assigned to each patrol shift. During the two year period of DOJ review, 2012 to 2014, every use of force involving a police canine against a citizen involved a black citizen. The DOJ says that a permissive policy and lack of supervision allows officers to “…overstate the threat based on race, has resulted in avoidable canine bites to low-level offenders when other means of control were available” (DOJ, 2015, p.31). The report gave several examples of FPD canines biting African American suspects. These incidents led the Department of Justice to end this section of their report with these words, “…FPD’s use of canine bites only against African-American subjects is evidence of discriminatory policing in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and other federal law" (DOJ, 2015, p. 33).

 Spruill (2016) cited the canine section of the DOJ report in his attempt to connect slave patrols of the 18th and 19th centuries to modern day policing in America. Spruill (2016) used the Ferguson Missouri Police Department as his example of southern racialized policing in the modern United States.  He wrote that the slave patrols were organized to control slaves and their activities.  These slave patrols were the precursors of today’s modern police forces. The local police were borne out of the need to repress blacks and to insure white domination.  Such responsibility was given to the “trinity of southern law enforcers: slave patrols, slave hunters and their non-human partners, ‘packs of negro dogs’ (Spruill, 2016, p.43). These slave patrols were sanctioned by law and were the order of the times. Spruill (2016) wrote that the order of slavery, segregation, and discrimination of those days established practices in policing that exist to this day. 

The United States court system, including the Supreme Court, has repeatedly disagreed with Spruill’s (2016) idea of modern day “slave hunters and packs of negro dogs”.  Mesloh (2006) wrote about the Kerr v. West Palm Beach (1989) case in a study on bark and hold versus bite and hold police service canines. As part of its opinion on that case, the United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh District, stated “…the handler must have complete control over the actions of the canine. With such control the handler can recall and restrain the canine before a bite occurs (a verbal recall). Alternately, the handler can quickly remove the canine from the apprehended suspect” (a verbal out). Fleck (n.a.) expounded, “The U.S. K-9 industry standard is a verbal recall and verbal out. This has been addressed by the nationally recognized K-9 associations and Federal case law. In addition, the courts have been emphasizing the “immediate release” of a suspect once the handler commands it” (Fleck, n.d.) With such standards, training time is of paramount importance for police canines and their handlers. Canine behavior consists of four components. Those components are genetics, chemistry, early experience, and adult learning. In most cases, law enforcement agencies acquire their service canines at an age of 18-24 months. Canines are considered adults by that age. They learn from repetition and re-enforcement. They must receive adequate training time in order to learn new tasks (Mackenzie, 2015). According to Fleck (n.d.), the minimum industry standard for police canine training time is 16 hours per month for each canine and its handler. The 16 hour standard is recognized and endorsed by the three largest police canine organizations in the country, the United States Police Canine Association, the North American Police Work Dog Association, and the National Police Canine Association, however, these organizations are certifying bodies only.  They have no legal or disciplinary authority over police departments or police canine handlers. These certification standards regulate the physical performance of police canines and their handlers, but they do not include any testing of legal knowledge on the part of police canine handlers.

In the Kerr v. West Palm Beach (1989) case, the court also established the acceptable bite to apprehension ratio for police service canines is 30%.  The court also stated that any ratio over 20% should be reviewed for possible incidents of excessive use of force, poorly trained canines, or poorly trained handlers. The United States Court of Appeals, Eighth District, which includes Missouri, has also made several rulings concerning police canines as a form of force.  Those cases include Mettler v Whitledge (1999), Dennen v City of Duluth (2003), Mann v Yarnell (2007), and Szabla v City of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota (2007) (Fleck, n.a.). Each of those cases involved a police canine biting a person, whether a suspect or an innocent person. When officers acted negligently, the court reprimanded the officer and judicially corrected the improper action. Each of these cases were considered under the standard already set forth by the United States Supreme Court under Graham v Connor (1989).


This paper has reviewed the court case decisions which guide law enforcement officers in the use of force. The Supreme Court’s decision in Graham v. Connor (1989) established that any use of force by law enforcement must be objectively reasonable. It also established a three factor test for officers to consider when in a possible use of force situation.  In their report, the Department of Justice wrote, “…FPD’s use of canine bites only against African-American subjects is evidence of discriminatory policing in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and other federal law" (DOJ, 2015, p. 33). The only evidence cited to support this statement by the DOJ is the fact that during a two year period only African Americans were bit by FPD canines.

 In each example given by the DOJ, the use of a canine by FPD officers fails to meet the standards set forth by the United States Supreme Court in its Graham v. Connor (1989) decision. However, the Department of Justice fails to prove that the Ferguson Police Department canine bit suspects based on race. The DOJ also attempts to determine the intent and motivation of the FPD Canine Unit whenever it used its police canines as a use of force tool. This is akin to the “shock your conscience” doctrine, which became obsolete with the Graham v. Connor (1989) ruling.  The DOJ report cites statistical evidence gleaned from the municipal court records. It does not speak to statistical evidence of state court cases from Ferguson. Statistical evidence of the number of felony crimes for which an African American was the suspect may shed more light on their claim of racism by FPD officers and canine handlers.  Other helpful information would be the number of convictions of African American suspects for felonious crimes. Without more evidence, the DOJ’s claims against FPD officers are baseless and only serve to further inflame an already volatile situation. The DOJ did not bring any criminal charges against the police. No charges were brought for the killing of Michael Brown or any other finding deemed unconstitutional by the DOJ during their investigation. This fact is due to the lack of real evidence of any wrong doing by the Ferguson Police Department.


Chaney, C. (2015). Institutional racism: Perspectives on the Department of Justice's investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 39(4), 31.

Chapman, S. G. (1990). Police Dogs in North America. Springfield, Ill., U.S.A.: Charles C Thomas.

Fleck, T. (n.d.). Canine legal update and opinions. Retrieved April 19, 2018, from

Mackenzie, S. A. (2015), K9 Decoys and Aggression. Calgary: Brush.

Mesloh, C. (2006). Barks or bites? The impact of training on police canine force outcomes. Police Practice and Research, 7(4), 323-335. doi:10.1080/15614260600919670

Ross, D. L. (2002). An assessment of Graham v. Connor, ten years later. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 25(2), 294-318. doi:10.1108/13639510210429383

Savage, D. G. (1996). When bites are worse than barks: Courts differ on when use of police dogs constitutes unreasonable force. ABA Journal, 82(9), 38-39.

Sloman, L. K. (2004). Throw a dog a suspect: When using police canines becomes an unreasonable use of force under the fourth amendment. Golden Gate University Law Review, 34(1-3), 191.

Spruill, Larry H. (2016).  Slave Patrols, “Packs of Negro Dogs” and Policing Black Communities.  Phylon (1960-), 06/2016, Volume 53, Issue 1, pp. 42-66.


United States Department of Justice (2015). Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. Retrieved from

Wall, T. (2016). “For the very existence of civilization”: The police dog and racial terror. American Quarterly, 68(4), 861-882. doi:10.1353/aq.2016.0070



Keeping It Simple


I became aware of an issue within K-9 training many years ago. After noticing this problem, I began watching for it wherever I trained. As I expected, this is a common problem. We, handlers and trainers, are making a monumental mistake when we try to work multiple problems at the same time. I don’t just mean within the same repetition or the same set. I mean we should not be working multiple problems, or addressing multiple issues, until the dog is solid at the foundational task, no matter how long that takes.

Aggression control work is the most common area in which this mistake is made. As an example,  I recently had a conversation with a brand new handler about the initial training of his dog. The handler was describing an issue the dog was having while engaging the decoy in training. As most of these types of problems are, this issue was a lack of confidence in the dog.  Without seeing the problem first hand, I gave my best advice over the phone. After that discussion, the handler and I began talking about other training. The handler then mentioned release training with the dog. Of course, this got my curiosity and I began asking questions. What I found out was that in one aggression control session the dog was being told and encouraged to bite. Once the dog bit, it was being encouraged to continuing biting and to fight the decoy. The dog was then being lifted off of the bite, which when done properly, is a bite building exercise. This was being done in hopes of building the dog’s confidence. Then a short time later, the same day, the dog was being told to out. When it didn’t do so it was corrected into an out. The group responsible for the training of this particular dog saw that they had an issue, but they weren’t sure what to do to fix it.  They put their egos aside and made a few calls to different people to get some opinions. As it turns out, I had a day off and was able to work the dog. I saw exactly what was described to me over the phone. Within a few short session of aggression control training with confidence building exercises, the dog began showing signs of improvement. If caught early enough, and dealt with properly, a dog with the proper behaviors will overcome issues and move forward. This particular dog has very strong fighting behaviors and will be a solid street dog. At this point, until the dog overcomes his confidence issues, we shouldn’t be concerned with the out. We should be doing nothing but bite and confidence building exercises. Once the dog is confident, start working the out. If attempting to build confidence and the bite, while also trying to develop an out, what message is being sent to the dog? Does that message perpetuate a stronger, better working relationship between the dog and handler or does it cause conflict? In one session, the dog is being told to do something it isn’t confident doing, biting and fighting with a human. In the next session the dog is being told to bite the human, fight the human, let go of the human, and corrected for not doing so. Those are conflicting and confusing messages in the mind of the dog. When the dog is experiencing conflict and confusion there will be conflict between the dog and the decoy and the dog and the handler.

When problem solving, no matter in which discipline, break the problem down to its simplest form, and work on that particular problem until it is no longer a problem. Don’t be afraid of going back to the basics when an issue develops. One can’t go too far back. If the dog is comfortable at the level you went back to, it will progress quickly until the problem shows itself.  At that point, you will know what you have to work on.  Work on it until it is no longer a problem. Then move on. The last thing we, as handlers, trainers, and decoys want to do is send conflicting message, especially to a young dog, and we never want to create conflict between the dog and the handler or the decoy. 

In our next blog, I will discuss recognizing signs of stress in your working dog. Let me know if I can help you with anything.

Travis Walthall

Patriot K-9 Training