A Lakewood Police Department K-9 and his handler are the subject of a $3 million lawsuit filed Wednesday by Chad Boyles, a Pierce County resident who was mauled while walking in his South Tacoma neighborhood early on the morning of May 7, 2011.
Boyles sustained severe injuries to his right arm when he was attacked by Astor, the Lakewood K-9 handled by Officer James Syler.
The Boyles incident was not the first time actions by Astor and Officer Syler led to a complaint. The same K-9 team was involved in the brutal 2010 mauling of Noel Saldana that put Saldana in the hospital for 11 days and left him permanently disabled. Saldana was suspected of a domestic violence assault. He said he didn’t know police were looking for him. But in his police report, Officer Syler said Saldana was hiding in the bushes and ignored warnings. Saldana was never charged with a crime.
In 2009, another Lakewood man spent 9 days in the hospital after being attacked by Astor. Officer Syler said the man was hiding in a room and ignored warnings, so he sent in Astor.
The pattern of attacks involving the same K-9 team raises questions about whether the Lakewood Police Department is failing to provide proper oversight.
What happened to Boyles in 2011 is particularly jarring given that he was not a suspect in any crime. Boyles said that he was not given any warning that a police dog was near him.
After an argument with his brother at his home in South Tacoma, Boyles said he went for a walk. When he was close to a nearby park, he said he "heard a huff and a puff" just before Astor attacked him.
"And it just latched onto my wrist, started chewing and ripping at my wrist, trying to get a grip on my neck," Boyles said.
Astor's handler, Officer James Syler, was assisting Pierce County Sheriff's deputies in their search for a man wanted for questioning for a domestic violence call. Boyles didn't match the suspect's description.
In his police report, Syler said he called off Astor as soon as he saw Boyles and realized he was not the suspect. Boyles describes a brutal attack before Astor was called off.
"I thought he broke my wrist. And he just kept chewing into the muscles and tendons," Boyles said. He described a "feeling of powerlessness over this giant black dog that's just biting and tearing and ripping at me."
At the hospital after the attack, Boyles said he was told the doctors might have to amputate his arm. That didn't happen, but Boyles, who builds parts for airplanes, is still dealing with the aftereffects, which he said is like having "a hand that doesn't feel like my own."
K-9 bites are considered a "use of force" akin to a police officer using a firearm, taser or physical strength to subdue a suspect. Any use of force is reviewed by the department to ensure an officer's response was appropriate. But in the Boyles incident, the standard use of force review wasn’t done-- something KING 5 discovered when analyzing what was supposed to be a comprehensive database of every use of force incident involving Astor and Syler.
In an email, Lt. Chris Lawler of the Lakewood PD's Criminal Investigations Unit, said: "I was just notified that since it was an accidental dog bite, no use of force report was required or completed."
Lawler declined to answer more questions about why no use-of-force review was conducted. Instead, he offered this in an e-mail: “If the dog accidentally bites a person, it is not considered a use of force, but is considered an unintended contact. The handler is required to document the incident in a written report, which is reviewed by the supervisor of the canine unit. The supervisor reviews it to see if it was preventable or for any training needs and compliance with our policies.”
KING 5 has requested the supervisory review but has not yet received it.
In all, Astor and Syler are the subject of four lawsuits, one of which was dismissed, one was settled for an undisclosed amount, and the other -- Saldana's -- is expected to go to trial in March.
The attorney defending the City of Lakewood in the suits did not respond to KING 5's requests for comment.
Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar also declined KING 5's multiple requests to appear on camera to answer questions about Astor and the department's K-9 policies.
But Farrar commented on KING 5's report on Saldana's case during a Feb. 26 interview with KIRO-Radio's Ron and Don Show. "We love these dogs and they're great animals," he said, "so I could tell when I was first contacted by KING 5 the outcome of this particular report was going to be bad, I mean they weren't really trying to investigate they were just trying to sensationalize and that's too bad."
Farrar also told the show's hosts, "Real easy way not to get bit by the K-9 dog is to do what you're told."
The department's official K-9 policy, obtained by KING 5 through a public records request, states that police dogs "must be employed in a reasonable and necessary manner."