Tukwila, Wash., police were so concerned about a police dog’s propensity to bite suspects and officers themselves that they had the animal’s teeth filed down. But just weeks later the K-9 tore a fist-sized chunk out of a teenage suspect’s calf, a new federal lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit was filed this month by Luis Yellowowl-Burdeau, who was a 19-year-old domestic-violence suspect hiding under a bush in his backyard when the dog, named Officer Gino, bit him in 2012, The Seattle Times reported. The complaint says that he suffered a permanent injury and had medical bills totaling $81,000.
In less than four years with the department, the German shepherd bit 31 people, including his handler and another law-enforcement officer, the lawsuit said, alleging “a pattern of unconstitutional conduct,” by the department’s K-9 unit.
Chief Mike Villa, in an emailed response to written questions, said Gino and his handler were “a very effective team” and that the number of bites averages out to around seven “captures” a year, which he said would not be out of line for a “properly performing” K-9 team in a department with 30,000 service calls a year.
Gino garnered sympathetic media coverage after being stabbed in the neck while helping his handler, Officer James Sturgill, apprehend a shoplifter in 2009. But in January 2012, while tracking a robbery suspect in a trailer court, Gino grabbed the calf of King County Sheriff’s Deputy Matthew Olmstead, crushing and tearing at the leg. Tukwila paid $175,000 to settle Olmstead’s claim against the city.
That year, Assistant Police Chief Bruce Linton reviewed the dog’s record and ordered “the filing/rounding out of K-9 Officer Gino’s teeth,” after which the dog would be allowed to return to duty, according to documents obtained by Eric Nelson, Yellowowl-Burdeau’s Seattle attorney.
But experts question that decision. The head of the 2,800-member U.S. Police Canine Association, David “Lou” Ferland, said he had never heard of that technique being used to minimize bite damage, and Shan Hanon, the president of the Washington State Police Canine Association and a dog handler with the Bellingham Police Department, said he doesn’t agree with it.
“There is another theory that by grinding down the dog’s teeth you get more pressure on a bite that could actually cause more damage,” Hanon said in an email.
Yellowowl-Burdeau was being sought because his mother reported that after she threw a plastic chair leg at him, he threw it back, causing minor injuries. He was unarmed and hiding in his backyard when the dog dragged him out from underneath the bush.
According to Richard Jolley, the Seattle lawyer representing Tukwila in the lawsuit, the officers had to arrest Yellowowl-Burdeau because of the state’s mandatory-arrest requirement in domestic-violence cases where injuries result. “And the only way they had to find him was with a dog,” Jolley said.
Court documents say that as Yellowowl-Burdeau was loaded into an ambulance, Sturgill’s dash-camera audio captured him cursing and saying, “Ohhh, we’re going to get in trouble for that one.”
The police chief retired the dog six days later. Gino died of cancer in 2015.
Several police departments around the state have paid settlements following bites by police dogs. Earlier this year, Tukwila paid $100,000 to a man bitten by a police dog while being arrested for trespassing in a freight yard. The Peninsula Daily News reported Sunday that a man has filed a $2.7 million claim against Port Angeles after being mistakenly bitten in February by a police dog that was chasing a suspected car thief.
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