By Ryan Martin | Indianapolis Star
Oct. 25, 2020
After William “Duke” Oliver read through the results of a yearlong IndyStar and Invisible Institute investigation into police dogs this month, the 76-year-old man said his mind raced back to the Selma marches in 1965, where police officers assaulted Black residents seeking to vote. During other protests around that time, police officers sent dogs to attack marchers and demonstrators, too.
Looking through the IndyStar story, Oliver learned that the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department led its peers in the rate of K-9 bites over the last three years. And, Oliver saw, Black residents were bitten at three times the rate of white residents.
“This is Selma all over again,” said Oliver, a Black man serving as a Democrat on the Indianapolis City-County Council.
Oliver joined a bipartisan group who carried their concerns into the council chambers on Wednesday. For 21/2 hours, they pressed IMPD Chief Randal Taylor and Deputy Chief Josh Barker for answers on what’s driving the bite disparities. At times, their questions grew impassioned, such as when multiple councilors became unsettled after Chief Taylor repeatedly said fewer people would be bitten by police dogs if they never ran from police in the first place.
Taylor and Barker, meanwhile, sought to assure councilors that the department is pursuing a number of policy changes that, they pledged, would lower the number of police dog bites, putting IMPD in a comparable position to other major police departments.
“We recognize there’s too many bites,” Taylor said.
From 2017 to 2019, IMPD officers commanded dogs to bite 243 people – an amount larger than 11 other major police departments combined. And whereas some major cities saw one bite over those three years, Indianapolis saw one every five days.
Those were just some of the findings of the yearlong investigation by IndyStar and the Invisible Institute, produced in partnership with AL.com and The Marshall Project. The first-of-its-kind national analysis examined the use of K-9s at police departments in the largest 20 U.S. cities over the last three years.
IMPD was responsible for the highest rate of dog bites by far.
The investigation also found:
- Nearly 60% of people who had been bitten in Indianapolis were suspected in only low-level and non-violent crimes or traffic infractions; bites that would appear to be out of policy in some other cities, such as Seattle and Washington, D.C.
- At least 65% of those bitten were unarmed and did not act violently, facts that contradict IMPD’s stated reasons for using dogs so often
- More than half of the people who were bitten are Black, a disproportionately high number for a population that makes up just 28% of the city
- 15% of people bitten were younger than 18. Three-fourths of the juveniles are Black.
- Sometimes police dogs bit the wrong people entirely, such as police officers at a crime scene or innocent bystanders in a neighborhood.
Just days after IndyStar presented the investigation’s findings to Taylor this month, the chief announced in a press release that IMPD planned to change how the department used police dogs.
“I’m very pleased with Deputy Chief Barker,” Taylor told councilors Wednesday, “and his new policy moving forward.”
Among the changes planned for the K-9 unit are new criteria for deploying patrol dogs in the first place. Whereas IMPD’s current policy enables officers to use those dogs to hunt and bite people suspected in all felony and misdemeanor cases, Barker said the new policy would not allow dogs in a misdemeanor case unless a suspect is armed.
Not all councilors and community members appear to be convinced. Especially Oliver.
What bothers him is this notion that the dogs are seen as tools of punishment, putting officers in the positions of judge and jury each time the dogs are sent to bite.
And, as Barker acknowledged under Oliver’s questioning, the dogs do not typically stop biting someone when commanded by an officer; instead, an officer has to physically remove the dog. Experts have told IndyStar that physically removing a dog can often lead to more severe bites because the dog’s teeth can rip through a person’s skin.
To illustrate his concern, Oliver described a scenario where someone is fleeing but is eventually caught by regular patrol officers. It’s not as if the officers then routinely pull out their batons and start beating the person.
So, Oliver wonders: Why is it that, when a K-9 officer tracks down someone who ran, the officer is allowing a dog to inflict pain and create potentially life-altering injuries on someone? Should IMPD’s dogs be trained to bite at all?
“That dog,” Oliver said to IMPD leadership, “he’s going to maul.”
‘A gap in understanding’
Perhaps the most heated exchange at the committee meeting occurred between Councilor Leroy Robinson, a Democrat and the public safety committee chairman, and Chief Taylor.
Robinson, citing the disparity in bites among Black and white residents, asked the chief: “Aren’t other residents breaking the law in Marion County? Or is it just African Americans?”
Taylor responded by saying his officers are using the same standard, no matter who it is. He started to describe whether IMPD should call off a search for a burglar because of the color of the burglar’s skin.
“Well yeah this guy burglarized your house,” Taylor said, “but we’re going to let that go. I don’t think that -“
“Chief, that is not what we are saying and you know that,” Robinson interrupted him. “We are not asking you to let these guys go. That is not the issue, to let criminals go. It is just that how is it we have an alarming rate of racial inequity to a certain group of people, and your answer is, ‘Well, they broke the law.’ So we are not asking for them to get a pass. We are asking that law be utilized and enforced equitably across our city.”
Later, Councilor Keith Graves, an east-side Democrat, shared similar concerns.
“There’s a gap in understanding in what law enforcement and our community expects of one another,” Graves told the chief. “To hear that we need an explanation as to why African Americans are three times likely to be bitten by a police dog, and the response being they should not have done that whatever it was that caused them to be pursued, is disheartening.”
Graves wanted to know in which police districts and in which neighborhoods are dogs being used the most. He also wanted to know which races of people were being bitten the most within each district and neighborhood. “Not only do I want that information,” Graves said, “the people in my community want that information.”
Taylor responded: “Now I’m a Black man, too. I don’t like those numbers. I don’t.”
And if IMPD’s dogs are biting more Black people, Taylor said, then it’s probably happening in mostly Black neighborhoods. “No way around that,” the chief said.
Taylor then, repeating something he asserted earlier, said people need to stop running from police. “I can’t back off that,” the chief said. “That’s what my advice would be.”
The response has not sit well with Robinson in the hours following the committee meeting. In an interview the next day, Robinson said the chief’s “defensiveness” and “dismissiveness” was “off-putting,” particularly on a topic so sensitive and emotional.
It did not appear to sit well with Graves, either. Graves declined an IndyStar request for an interview, but elaborated on his concerns to the chief during the committee meeting.
“We need our law enforcement. We want our law enforcement. There’s an important role that they play,” Graves said. “What 2020 has shown us is that they are not military; we don’t need them to act like the military. We also are now awakened by this (IndyStar) article that they are not slave hunters, and we don’t want them to act like slave hunters.”
‘Is my child at risk?’
Councilor Ali Brown, a Democrat on the north-east side, said she has more questions than solutions right now.
Questions like: Are there any particular officers who are pursuing petty criminals the most? Are there any dogs who are more likely to bite someone, even if they shouldn’t? And just because someone has broken the law, do we want Indianapolis to be the city that responds forcefully with a dog bite every time?
Brown thinks of Mara Mancini, a 21-year-old woman who was seven months pregnant when an IMPD K-9 attacked her in 2015. She had to undergo multiple surgeries, and she went into labor early. And Brown thinks of Gordon Mitchum, a 78-year-old man who was resting on his back porch when an IMPD K-9 bit him twice.
She also thinks about the people she knew in high school who committed what she described as dumb, low-level crimes but would not have deserved to experience the pain of a police dog bite.
But most of all, she thinks of her young son, who is on the autism spectrum. She cannot help but wonder if he, too, might find himself creating mischief as a teenager one day.
What will happen to him if he sees the lights of a police car approaching? Would he panic and run, too? Would he then find himself under the weight of a German shepherd or Belgian Malinois?
“As a mother of a special needs child, seeing those numbers is really frightening to me,” Brown said. “I know that’s selfish of me, but I think every parent would ask, ‘Is my child at risk?'”
Some of the new policies
As IMPD’s leadership acknowledges what it calls a problem, they’re also asking for patience as they work on a new policy.
“Even though the state of the K-9 unit right now in how we’ve been operating up to this point, on paper, is legal and appropriate and within guidelines, I think this is another opportunity for IMPD to shine, as it has done in the past, and self-reform,” Barker told councilors Wednesday. “We are open to holding our agency – and I’m open to holding my officers and myself – to a higher standard than just what’s set as the floor of acceptable use.”
Some things have already changed, Barker said. K-9 officers are no longer going to join vehicle pursuits on their own, as they have in the past. A K-9 supervisor’s approval is required.
Other criteria, that Barker says would reduce the number of dog deployments, are under consideration as part of a draft policy. K-9 officers would only respond to a crime scene to search for a suspect after patrol officers have already created a perimeter around the suspect, Barker said. And K-9 officers would wield less discretion over when to bring out a dog; those decisions would be made by supervisors on the unit.
K-9 officers would also work as a team, Barker said, each carrying new tools such as tear gas, stun guns and protective equipment, giving officers new ways to subdue someone without always relying on a dog bite.
Eventually, Barker said, IMPD also hopes to improve the data it tracks about the K-9 unit. Barker said he had no way of quickly identifying the bite disparities uncovered in the IndyStar investigation. For example, IMPD does not record every time a dog is deployed or every time someone surrenders after a K-9 officer announces the presence of a dog.
Barker said the lack of data has become a glaring problem that limits his ability to assess his unit.
Finally, IMPD brought in an outside expert – Michael Goosby, a K-9 officer from the Los Angeles Police Department – to consult the department. He visited IMPD before, but returned last week for another visit. Goosby planned to provide a list of recommendations on Friday, Barker said.
Mayor Joe Hogsett, in a statement, commended Chief Taylor for pursuing reforms on IMPD, including changes to the use-of-force policy and what’s planned for the K-9 unit.
“These reforms, guided by national best practices, are aimed at reducing the number of bites by the K-9 unit and continuing to build trust with the community,” Hogsett said in the statement. “The recent IndyStar investigation highlighted important gaps in data, which the department has committed to addressing – and I am confident that if additional changes to policy need to occur, they will.”
Councilor Paul Annee, a Republican on the south side, said he was as troubled as anyone by the number of IMPD dog bites. The constituents who emailed and messaged him also shared similar concerns.
But he sees this moment as an opportunity for IMPD to look inward and improve. Annee said he and other councilors should also work harder to address the root causes that can lead to crime, such as lack of educational opportunities and widespread poverty.
“We’re all in this together,” Annee said. “K-9s have a purpose in law enforcement today as we know it. And that’s OK. But that’s not to say tomorrow, that we won’t find a better technique or technology that’s better to use.”
Rick Snyder, president of the Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police, said he has not been given the opportunity to review the new K-9 policies under consideration. But from what he’s heard from K-9 officers, they appreciate what’s being proposed.
“I think the consensus that I’ve been able to see and hear is that officers prefer a proactive posture in making sure that they’re working in an area that’s maintaining best practices throughout the country and the field,” Snyder said.
Snyder said he fears, though, that the community may lose sight of just how valuable K-9s are to police officers.
“They protect officers from getting hurt,” Snyder said. “I know for a fact that they’ve saved officers’ lives and I’m glad we have them.”
‘We’re not finished’
Rena Allen, a community organizer with Faith in Indiana, said she grew angry after seeing that IMPD was responsible for the highest rate of dog bites among large departments. It hurt even more to see that police dogs were disproportionately biting Black residents.
“When you look at the numbers, as this news article wrote, it just lets you know that we still have a lot of work to do,” Allen said. “Because it’s like man, when are we going to get a break here? I’ve never thought to look at a K-9 unit in this way.”
She wants residents to reevaluate IMPD’s policies, even the new ones that are under consideration.
“I do not trust that IMPD can handle this on their own. I think the community needs to be involved,” Allen said. “We definitely need to stay involved.”
Robinson, the public safety committee chair, said Wednesday’s meeting was simply the beginning of a longer process. His committee will follow up with IMPD in the coming months, he said.
“We’re not finished. But in fairness, we have to let them draft policy,” Robinson said. “Once they complete the policy process and want to implement some things, we’ll have them come back and give an update.”
And, Robinson said, perhaps a new General Orders Board could help refine the K-9 policy if necessary. A Democratic supermajority on the council has pursued the creation of the board, and a composition that includes a civilian majority, to govern IMPD policy.
Robinson wants Chief Taylor to return by March next year for an update.
As for Councilor Oliver, he said he is pushing for public hearings where Indianapolis residents can weigh in on how police officers use dogs.
He also is urging people who have been bitten, who he referred to as “victims,” to come forward to share their experiences with city-county councilors, too.
The Invisible Institute reporters Andrew Fan, Dana Brozost-Kelleher and Ellen Glover contributed to this story.
Contact IndyStar investigative reporter Ryan Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone, Signal or WhatsApp at 317-500-4897. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter: @ryanmartin.
About the investigation
IndyStar and the Invisible Institute in Chicago partnered on a yearlong investigation into Indianapolis police dogs. The investigation, published this month, is part of a series titled Mauled, produced in partnership with AL.com and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system.
IndyStar will continue to investigate this topic. If you have information you would like to share, please email IndyStar investigative reporter Ryan Martin at email@example.com, call 317-444-6294 or securely use Signal at 317-500-4897.