Every time he looks in the mirror, Tredell Smith sees a vivid reminder of his brush with Bo, the New Orleans police canine that chewed through part of his face.
It happened one night last summer, as Smith was trying to avoid landing in handcuffs for the umpteenth time.
He had eluded police on North Roman Street, scurrying into a home and locking the door. But he couldn’t escape the keen sense of the Belgian Malinois, which eventually found him hiding under an adjacent house in the 7th Ward.
The ensuing attack altered Smith’s appearance, leaving him with a badly scarred face that will remain with him long after he’s served his state prison sentence for marijuana and gun charges.
“Basically, the dog went crazy,” said Smith’s attorney, Desherick Boone, who filed a federal lawsuit against the city and several New Orleans Police Department officials this month, claiming Bo’s actions amounted to excessive force. “The dog’s teeth were caught under his jawbone, 2 inches from his jugular. He could have easily been killed.”
Bo, a nearly 10-year veteran of the NOPD’s K-9 unit, remained in service for several months after biting Smith before an ailing hip hastened his retirement. Sgt. Ricky Blanchard, the commander of the K-9 unit, said the dog “followed all canine protocol during the search and subsequent apprehension” of Smith, 23, who allegedly ditched a handgun at the sight of police but was unarmed when he was bitten.
The July 2013 incident, one of at least seven bite cases involving NOPD dogs last year, raises questions about the control police have over their canine companions and brings new attention to the department’s long-troubled K-9 unit — a division deemed so dysfunctional by federal authorities that it was temporarily suspended in 2010 amid a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.
While the unit appears to have made significant progress over the past few years, the response in Smith’s case seems questionable in light of a wide-ranging consent decree that ushered in several restrictions on canine use as part of a broader Police Department overhaul.
One of those provisions says canines should be allowed to bite suspects only if they are “actively resisting” or escaping or if they pose “a risk of imminent danger” to the canine handlers or others. The consent decree says “active resistance” must involve more than “concealment and refusal to surrender.” The decree also forbids handlers from allowing dogs to bite a suspect “if a lower level of force could reasonably be expected to control the suspect or allow for the apprehension.”
“Once an attack starts, it’s sometimes very difficult for the officers to stop the dog,” said Richard H. Polsky, a certified applied animal behaviorist in Los Angeles. “The vast majority of handlers are ethical and trustworthy in deploying their dogs in the right situations and not going beyond what the proper use of force is. But, unfortunately, you’re dealing with animal behavior, and the reality of animal behavior with these kinds of dogs is they can’t be as well-controlled as the police say, even in the best of circumstances.”
A violent arrest
Officers patrolling the Treme area were on heightened alert the night of July 6, 2013, because of a recent shooting and “an increase in violent crime” in the area, according to a New Orleans police report. The description of the suspect in the shooting — a black man in a black T-shirt — seemed to fit Smith, whom two officers spotted as they drove down Columbus Street.
“The officers approached from the rear of Smith in their marked police vehicle,” the report says, “at which time Smith immediately reached into the front of his waistband and produced a black handgun by means of throwing it onto the ground in the 1400 block of North Roman Street.”
Boone, Smith’s attorney, disputed several aspects of the police report, saying the gun easily could have been dropped by one of the other young men hanging out on the block who took off running.
Smith entered a house at 1479 N. Roman St. and locked the door behind him, the report said, prompting police to set up a perimeter and summon a K-9 unit.
Officer Leonard Standeford arrived with Bo, followed by a tactical team that went into the house in search of Smith. Bo made “several alerts” toward the adjacent home at 1812 Columbus St., which Smith apparently crawled under after leaving the Roman Street residence, the police report said.
Smith and his mother, who said she was standing on a nearby street corner, maintain that police gave no warning before releasing Bo. The police report, however, quotes Standeford as warning Smith about the dog and admonishing him to come out.
The NOPD consent decree requires handlers to issue “three loud and clear warnings that a canine will be deployed” and allow “a sufficient period of time between each warning” to give suspects a chance to surrender. The warnings are to be given in Spanish or Vietnamese if the suspect is believed to have limited English proficiency.
“I never heard the police say, ‘We’re setting the dogs out,’ and I was right there on the corner,” said Smith’s mother, Treleah Smith, who recalled hearing her son “screaming and hollering” in pain after he was bitten.
The police report makes little mention of the attack and Tredell Smith’s injuries. It says he “continued to resist by not coming (out) from underneath the house, at which time the K-9 dog made a bite to Smith’s face causing him to submit to arrest.”
Boone, however, contends the attack lasted up to five minutes and that Smith’s face was ripped and torn “almost beyond recognition.”
“The attack was allowed to continue, uninterrupted, despite the fact that Mr. Smith was unarmed and laying in a submissive position under the house,” he wrote in the lawsuit. “Bo was given free rein to maul and tear at Mr. Smith for an open-ended amount of time.”
After the officers gained control of Bo and Smith came out from under the house, Boone said, the dog attacked him again, this time targeting the other side of his face.
Police said they found 11 grams of marijuana in Smith’s front pocket, wrapped for distribution, plus $182 in cash believed to come from drug sales. Smith also would be charged with possessing the discarded handgun as a convicted felon, but he was in no shape to go straight to jail after being taken into custody.
EMS personnel stabilized him and took him to Interim LSU Hospital. He received more than 300 stitches and suffered nerve damage that likely will require medication for the rest of his life, Boone said, “not only for the pain, but to keep the nerves from twitching.”
“His lip is still ripped in two,” Boone added. “He has a keloid (scar) on the inside of his lip, so when he smiles, now his smile is disfigured.”
The lawsuit says Smith’s injuries also altered his speech.
Seeking to avoid a decades-long prison term as a habitual offender, Smith pleaded guilty in November to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and second-offense marijuana possession. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison but will be eligible for release as early as July 2018, according to the state Department of Corrections.
“Tredell has never been charged with hurting someone, just being around people that get him in trouble,” Smith’s grandmother, Linda Reeves, wrote in a letter to Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich before sentencing.
Police canines are generally trained to go after a suspect’s extremities and avoid the face and neck. But Polsky, the animal behaviorist, said Bo’s reaction could have been attributable, at least in part, to how Smith was positioned under the house. “I don’t think the dog was intentionally acting out,” Polsky said. “The problem is they train these dogs in artificial situations, and what happens in the real world, these things can never be replicated.”
Blanchard, the canine commander, said Bo was bought by the NOPD in 2004 and was certified each year by the National Narcotic Detector Dog Association and the National Police Canine Association. “Canine Bo remained on the street with Officer Standeford after (Smith’s) apprehension and continued to perform at a high level,” Blanchard said.
Bo retired in December due to hip dysplasia and nerve issues, Blanchard said. He was euthanized last month after living briefly with Standeford as a family pet.
Training was chief among federal authorities’ concerns when they examined the NOPD’s K-9 unit.
In a 2011 report, the Justice Department warned that some of the canines were “almost completely uncontrollable and the rest were not consistently controllable.” The unit was poorly supervised and had incomplete records, and some canines were even attacking their handlers.
The report found that NOPD canines bit about 60 percent of the suspects they apprehended, a ratio the feds said was twice the 30 percent rate “one would expect to see in a well-run canine unit.” Most troubling, perhaps, was how poorly the canines performed during “recall,” an exercise in which an officer commands a dog to stop an attack. “Many of the handlers were unable to recall their dog during the exercise,” the DOJ report said, “and most had never previously executed this exercise.”
By the time the consent decree became official last year, the Department of Justice acknowledged “significant improvements” in NOPD canine operations, including training and handler control. Despite Smith’s injuries, a team of court-appointed experts monitoring reforms at the NOPD recently reported a decrease in the rate of dog bites recorded in 2013.
Of the 27 apprehensions made last year by dogs, seven resulted in bites — about 26 percent. Those arrests ranged from residential burglary and illegal carrying of a weapon cases to murder and rape. A weapon was said to be involved in only four of those cases, including the arrest of Smith.
The bite rate began to rise again in 2014. Six of 10 canine arrests through the end of March involved bites, the consent decree monitors said in a report that did not detail the resulting injuries.
“It’s difficult to predict what the dog’s going to do,” Polsky said. “It can be a very dangerous situation.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.