PIERCE COUNTY -- K-9s help police track down dangerous criminals and can save lives. But they can also inflict debilitating injuries and sometimes they go after the wrong person.
Mark Roberts was asleep in his Puyallup home when a helicopter woke him up late at night. He stepped outside in his boxer trunks and tee shirt to see what was going on and saw a German shepherd lunging at him, according to Roberts’ attorney Dennis La Porte.
“His flanks were chewed up; his arms were chewed up. He thought he was going to die in his own courtyard,” said La Porte.
According to the Pierce County Sheriff's Department report, the dog, named Vasko, had just finished an unsuccessful search for a hit-and-run suspect and was let off its leash to defecate. Vasko’s handler wrote that the dog took off running and did not respond to commands to stop, probably because noise from King County’s Guardian One helicopter, which had been called to assist in the search, prevented the dog from hearing him.
Roberts said Vasko mauled him for 4 to 5 minutes. He declined to discuss his case in detail saying he still has nightmares and remains traumatized even though the incident happened in September 2008. Roberts reluctantly agreed to let La Porte tell his story.
“We think of these dogs as ‘Rin Tin Tin’ but these are the dogs of Auschwitz and Selma, Alabama,” said La Porte. “To me, letting a dog loose like that is like accidentally discharging a shotgun into the bushes or intentionally doing it.”
Pierce County recently paid Roberts $350,000 to settle his claim for negligence. Vasko is now retired from the force. But Roberts’s case is not an isolated one. Over the past several years, Pierce County has paid close to $600,000 to people bitten by its K-9s. Most of the money went to innocent victims.
Pierce County Sheriff’s Detective Ed Troyer, spokesman for the department, said cases of innocent bystanders getting bitten are rare.
“We have control (of the dogs). Absolutely,” he said. “The amount of incidents that occur is very few considering how much good and successful incidents there are.”
Troyer said most injuries occur when suspects refuse to cooperate with police.
Ron Jones of Puyallup recently filed a claim against Pierce County alleging the department was negligent when he was bitten by K-9 Ono in February 2011 and wound up in the hospital for four days undergoing multiple surgeries and skin grafts.
Jones was not an innocent bystander. He’d had multiple encounters with police and had run from them before. Jones was bitten when police knocked on the front door of a house where he was staying and he walked out a back door.
“Before I could turn around, I was down on the ground, (an) officer hits me with a flashlight and I got a big dog on my arm,” Jones said.
Jones said the deputy gave no warning he was about to unleash a dog even though he was standing only a few feet away. He also said the officer didn’t pull off the dog right away.
“These dogs are trained to hurt people severely. He knew that, but just let the dog keep chewing on me.”
Jones is suing claiming the use of force was excessive. Troyer said Jones has no one to blame but himself. “In this particular case, he knew we were there, he attempted to run, had multiple times, and we used a dog to keep him from doing that.”
There are currently three claims pending against Pierce County, filed by people who were bitten by K-9s, according to Mark Maenhout, Director of Risk Management. Two of the claims name dogs from other police agencies, but Maenhout said Pierce County is responsible for any damages because they called in the dogs and were in charge of the operation.
Ron Pace runs Canyon Crest K-9 Training Center in Puyallup. At a dog personal protection control class Pace demonstrated how dogs can be ordered to turn “off” and “on.” Many of the dogs Pace now trains are pets, but he has also trained police dogs and said that whether it’s a pet or a K-9 the key is obedience.
“You got to be able to call it off; you got to be able to turn it off,” Pace said. He said he’s been receiving a lot of calls from attorneys representing people torn up by dogs, mostly police dogs.
“I’m seeing the scars and the damage,” Pace said, “They’re disabling people for life, and is it worth it?”