Ray Buursma: Withdraw police dogs

Here we go again.

Last month, an Ohio Highway Patrol Officer attempted to pull over a trucker for a missing mud flap. The 23-year-old Black driver feared to stop, so he said later, and drove within the speed limit for about 30 minutes while followed by several units. He reasoned the police might mean him harm since he was certain he had committed no infraction. He even called his mother for advice. “Pull over,” she said. He should have stopped immediately, but he did stop.

Ray Buursma

Ray Buursma

Guns drawn, the officers ordered the driver to exit the cab with hands up. He complied. So far, so good. Then an officer from a local jurisdiction arrived. He rushed into the situation with his police dog in tow and sicced the canine on the compliant, kneeling driver. The dog took the man down and bit his legs repeatedly. The officer was subsequently dismissed from his department.

In April 2022, a suspect in Des Moines tried to evade police. The suspect was already on the ground, writhing in pain from a fall of his own making and surrounded by a group of officers. Nevertheless, a canine was ordered to attack. The suspect had already submitted, but the dog kept biting for at least ten seconds. One of the men at the scene, a firefighter, approached the canine officer and whispered loud enough for a body cam to record, “Should’ve let it (the dog) keep biting him.”

In February 2017, a senior woman was cleaning her backyard shed in Minnesota. The noise concerned a neighbor who suspected and reported a burglary. She called the police who arrived with their dog. They heard the noise as well. Not knowing who was in the shed, they ordered the “suspect” out. That “suspect” turned out to be an 81-year-old woman who neither spoke nor understood English.

The officers warned they would release their dog if the “suspect” did not exit the shed. The 81-year-old woman was oblivious. Even if she heard, she did not understand. When she did not comply (how could she?) the dog was released. It attacked the woman who suffered puncture wounds, abrasions and bruises. The police chief defended the officers’ actions and attributed the event to an unfortunate set of circumstances.

A Michigan State police officer attempted to pull over a suspect in 2020. The suspect fled in his car but crashed into a tree. With a broken leg, he crawled from his car onto the ground when the officer ordered his dog to attack. For three minutes and 44 seconds, the dog bit and mauled. When, at one point the suspect yelled, “He’s biting my face,” the officer replied, “I don’t care.” The officer was charged with felonious assault.

An Ohio State trooper stopped a vehicle for an illegal license plate. When the nonviolent driver refused to identify himself and exit the car, more units were called, including a canine unit. A trooper broke the window and shoved the dog through it. It attacked the suspect. As the man screamed and writhed in pain, he attempted to push the dog’s mouth off his arm. The officer yelled, “Stop fighting the dog.”

According to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit organization studying the American Criminal Justice System, police dogs bite thousands of Americans every year. They often bite innocents who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the Washington, D.C., woman who was attacked when a police dog escaped from its car. The dogs often ignore their trainer’s commands because they are highly agitated, like the canine which repeatedly bit the legs of a handcuffed man in Gratan, California, despite the deputy’s attempt to withdraw the animal. One police dog even ripped off a person’s face.

Those who examine police dog attacks observe police officers almost always outnumber suspects in such encounters. Officers also have guns, tasers, batons, chemical agents, and handcuffs. Yet somehow these advantages are deemed insufficient, so police unnecessarily employ an animal trained to maul. This practice is wrong, foolish, and should end. Police should not have nor use attack dogs. They should be decommissioned.

Now, I have no doubt, none whatsoever, that a segment of society will respond with a big “So what? They (the suspects) got it coming.”

This “counterargument” presents at least three problems.

First, police officers are not tasked with administering punishment. Punishment is the task of the judiciary. Second, the 8th Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and mauling by a dog is cruel and unusual. Third, only a sick mind seeks to justify the mauling of a human being when other options for apprehension are present.

It’s time to retire the use of police dogs.

— Community Columnist Ray Buursma is a resident of Holland. Contact him at writetoraybuursma@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Ray Buursma: Withdraw police dogs

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