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Rights + Justice

New Provincial Rules Will Rein in Police Dogs

But Clark's 'off base' quip disappoints advocacy group.

Andrew MacLeod 28 Nov

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

On the same day that the British Columbia government announced new standards for the use of police dogs aimed at minimizing bites and injuries, Premier Christy Clark said she believes the animals should be allowed to bite "bad guys."

"You know, I'd never thought of that as an issue before," Clark said when a reporter asked if police dogs should be allowed to bite people. "I guess my answer is, I assume they should be able to do that. How else are they going to stop bad guys? Bark?"

In recent years the Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver has been raising awareness of how police dogs are often misused, resulting in many unnecessary bites and injuries, sometimes to innocent people.

The advocacy group has been pressing for changes to how police dogs are used and deployed, many of which the government made on Thursday.

The message that there's a problem had not, however, gotten through to the premier.

"They're trained," Clark said during the scrum in her office. "They catch bad guys, I'm good with that. That's appropriate."

Then Clark turned the topic into a joke at the expense of her political opposition: "If they just barked, and didn't draw any blood, didn't hurt anybody, didn't imperil anyone's future, they'd just be New Democrats."

Pivot pressed for changes

Douglas King, a Pivot staff lawyer who authored a report on the topic published in June, said he welcomed the changes but was disappointed by Clark's comments.

"It's ironic that on the day the government would be acknowledging the problems with the bite and hold method of training, the premier would be so off base in her reactions," King said, noting that some B.C. police departments have already moved to the more difficult but safer "bark and hold" method of training.

He said he personally hates the use of the words "bad guys" to describe people who interact with the police since it implies that the police are "good" and the people they deal with are "bad."

"It's obviously far more complicated than that," he said, noting that people who are homeless are over-represented among those who've been bitten by a police dog. "It's certainly not so simple to say the dogs bite the 'bad guys.' And defining what a 'bad guy' is these days is not so simple either."

Pivot's website includes examples from the past two years that it describes as shocking: "An 18 year old who was bitten by a police dog and scarred for life after shoplifting a sandwich. A Surrey man who was arrested for failing to pay for a DVD from a rental store and left his encounter with an RCMP police dog missing an ear after the dog attacked his head. A youth who was mauled a police dog after the group of friends he was with covered a police cruiser with silly string."

King's report, "Moving To Minimum Force: Police Dogs and Public Safety in British Columbia," found that between 2010 and 2012, there were 490 people bitten and injured by police dogs.

Avoid use of force: Pivot

The "bite and hold" approach should only be used in the most severe cases where public safety would be endangered by a failure to act, King said. "Just because a person commits a crime doesn't authorize the police to use force against them."

The job of police is to get a person accused of a crime in front of a court and let the court decide how they should be punished, but sometimes even premiers forget that, said King. "In a democracy that's how it works."

Attorney General Suzanne Anton has the lead on the file. King welcomed the changes she announced on Thursday.

Two-thirds of the recommendations from Pivot had been adopted, he said, including the most important ones. "It's a huge step in the right direction."

The new standards, to be implemented by September 2015, are the first of their kind in Canada, Anton said.

The guidelines say police dogs may bite only in specific situations, such as when a person is harming someone physically, is about to harm someone, or is fleeing or hiding and it's reasonable to think that allowing the dog to bite will make it possible to immediately arrest the person.

They also include new standards for training, bite treatment, reporting and annual testing. "Dogs must demonstrate their continued ability to be called off, remain under control while biting, and promptly release a bite upon hearing their handler's command," the guidelines say.

"The point is the dogs should be deployed in a proper way," said Anton. "Sometimes they will be biting people if they need to bring down a criminal or a person thought to have committed a crime. If they need to stop that person they will, but you don't want that to happen unnecessarily. That's the point of the standards we're putting in place today."

Asked if it would be too simple to say the dogs are dealing with "bad guys" and therefore should be allowed to bite them, Anton said, "That would be too simple to say, but it (biting) does happen from time to time. That's a reality of policing."  [Tyee]

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