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The Hunted: Police K-9s are meant to stop dangerous felons. They're more often unleashed on Black people accused of stealing

Brittany Wallman, Mario Ariza and Megan O'Matz, South Florida Sun-Sentinel on

Published in News & Features

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Pavon Davis cowered behind a fallen pine tree, his heart racing. The sharp teeth of a trained police dog drew nearer.

Davis, 18, and his friends had jumped a fence and entered Flanagan High School to play manhunt. Now a helicopter hovered overhead, guiding Pembroke Pines Police Officer Mark Farah and K-9 Rory to Davis’ hiding spot.

The dog bit without warning, body camera footage shows. As the Belgian Malinois tore into Davis’ leg, Officer Farah yelled “Get on the ground!” to Davis — who was already lying on his back, his hands raised in surrender. “I’m down!” the teen repeatedly shouted.

Like most people bitten by police dogs in Broward County, Davis was unarmed, accused of a nonviolent crime, and Black.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel examined 17 months of K-9 bites at Broward’s largest police agencies and found that 84% of people bitten were Black. Though racial disparities in criminal justice are common, the high percentage of Black people bitten by police dogs in Broward stands out. It eclipses the percentage of Black residents in the local population, and far exceeds the percentage of Black arrestees here.

Black children are commonly bitten. The Sun Sentinel found that nearly 1 in 5 people bitten were 17 or younger, despite policies that discourage police officers from unleashing K-9s on children. In Hollywood, that statistic was especially striking: almost half the people bitten were juveniles.

 

Inequalities in policing face renewed scrutiny following the videotaped murder of George Floyd beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. And police departments in Salt Lake City, New Orleans and elsewhere in the country are retiring their dogs or training them to find and bark instead of bite.

But in Broward, law enforcement leaders defend their K-9 practices and point to complex societal factors to explain the overrepresentation of Black people in their K-9 bite files. Advocates say those factors are precisely why police should stop unleashing K-9s on people — most often people of color — suspected of nonviolent property crimes.

The problem is compounded by a lack of transparency. Three of the six agencies examined by the Sun Sentinel — Fort Lauderdale, Miramar, and Pembroke Pines — don’t track their K-9 use by race. Not all K-9 officers in Broward wear body cameras, and some of those who do have turned them off or forgotten to activate them without consequence. That happened three times with Fort Lauderdale police officers, the Sun Sentinel found.

Police say race plays no role in who gets chased, and the only suspects who get bitten are those who don’t obey police orders.

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