Charles Carey was riding his dirt bike through north Baton Rouge in June 2019 when a police cruiser flipped on its lights.
The bike had no license plate, and the 17-year-old thought police just wanted it off the road, he said. So he sped away. Officers gave chase.
He hit a stump and went flying, busting open his chin. He got up and ran, then hid under a house. Officers set loose a dog to go after him. The animal bit his foot, then his knee. He kept screaming as the dog dragged him out from under the house. Police camera footage shows him yelling, “My leg!” as officers questioned him.
Between 2017 and 2019, Baton Rouge police dogs bit at least 146 people, records show. Of those, 53 were 17 years old or younger; the youngest were just 13. Almost all of the people bitten were Black, and most were unarmed and suspected by police of nonviolent crimes like driving a stolen vehicle or burglary.
The Baton Rouge Police Department is an extreme outlier compared with many other police agencies across the country, in how often it uses dogs to subdue people of all ages — and in particular how often its dogs bite teenagers, once every three weeks, on average.
The Marshall Project, an independent news organization focused on criminal justice in America, has been investigating the use of police dogs around the U.S. It examined bites by police dogs in the nation’s 20 largest cities from 2017 through 2019, as well as more than 30 other law enforcement agencies whose use of police dogs has sparked controversy.
A joint analysis by The Advocate and The Marshall Project found that the BRPD had the second highest per-capita rate of dogs biting suspects of the cities examined. Only the police department in Auburn, Washington, a much smaller city, had a higher rate.
The results were particularly striking when it came to juveniles, who are much more likely to be bitten in Baton Rouge than in any of the 12 other cities for which reporters could obtain the age of the victims.
The analysis also revealed stark racial disparities in dog bites in Baton Rouge. All but two of the 53 minors attacked by a BRPD police dog during those three years were Black. So, too, were more than 90% of the adults bitten, even though Black residents make up just over half of the city’s population. And in every instance, according to BRPD’s records, the officer handling the police dog was White.
Reporters also found that, in an overwhelming majority of cases, there was no evidence the people bitten by K-9s posed a grave threat. Almost all were unarmed; less than 9% of them were caught with a weapon, the records show.
The Advocate was unable to analyze court records from more than one-third of the incidents because both Baton Rouge police and the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office refused to provide information about cases involving juveniles, citing confidentiality rules.
But dispatch codes — which show what callers reported to 911 operators — indicate that in nearly every case, police were responding to suspected nonviolent property crimes.
That lines up with the experience of public defenders, local attorneys and a former juvenile judge in Baton Rouge, who said they routinely see children come into court with serious injuries from police dogs following arrests on low-level charges.
“Generally what we see is kids come in on minor property theft felonies, an unauthorized use of a motor vehicle charge, and the police apprehend them by siccing a dog on them,” said Madalyn Wasilczuk, director of LSU’s Juvenile Defense Clinic, which represents children in Baton Rouge juvenile court. “It’s done without regard for whether the child presents a danger to the police or the community.”
'Using all the restraint we can'
The BRPD defended its extensive use of police dogs, saying those bitten were suspected of serious crimes and were resisting arrest, either by hiding from police or running.
“Every single person that we caught was in the process of committing a felony, they were possibly armed and they were resisting arrest,” said Capt. Wayne Martin, a longtime K-9 officer and now commander of the Uniform Patrol Bureau. “If any one of those things is absent, we don’t use the dogs.”
While just a small fraction of those bitten by BRPD dogs were caught with a weapon, Martin contended officers don’t know in the moment whether a person might be armed. He added that officers are trained to unleash the dogs only after giving warnings to surrender.
“We’re using all the restraint we can to effect a lawful arrest,” said Martin. “The vast majority of cases, the injuries are very minor. Dogs are taken off as fast as we can gain control of the suspect.”
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Cpl. L’Jean McKneely, a BRPD spokesman, maintains that using K-9s is “actually safer for the suspect” than other methods at officers’ disposal.
With dogs, “We’re using less lethal (force) to take them into custody as opposed to maybe having to elevate it to possibly lethal force,” he said.
Wasilczuk disputed Martin’s claim that police issue alerts when they are about to unleash their dogs. “It’s simply not true that the police always warn the children,” she said. She said she’s seen body-cam video where there was no warning or one occurred at the same time as the dog was being released from a police car.
In at least one instance in recent years, she said, a Baton Rouge police dog that officers sicced on fleeing teens instead attacked a homeless man sleeping in the bushes. Wasilczuk said she’s also familiar with at least one case where police sent a dog into an occupied car, where it bit a child.
Jack Harrison, a juvenile public defender in East Baton Rouge Parish, said the typical crime he sees that ends with a K-9 bite starts with a teen running from a stolen car pulled over by police.
“There seems to be some real disconnect between (the) level of force used and the purpose of police contact,” Harrison said. He reviewed The Advocate’s data, and was especially concerned by the frequent deployment of police dogs on Black children.
“The racial disparity is an appalling part of this horrific situation,” Harrison said.
The Advocate interviewed three other teenagers, all Black, who were bitten by BRPD dogs, and their families. Each said that once the children were detained, officers minimized or ignored their dangerous wounds — known to be highly susceptible to infection or long-term muscle damage. Parents and guardians often only learned about the injuries days later, sometimes because a public defender noticed the bandages.
The families called the dog bites another sign of aggressive policing in their neighborhoods, a criticism the BRPD has faced for decades.
One child said he was not the only boy in the Baton Rouge juvenile detention facility with injuries from a police dog. Another said he became afraid of dogs after the incident, despite previously loving the family pet.
BRPD reports and arrest records often make little mention of a dog bite, even in cases that required stitches and left lasting scars. Officers record the bites in separate use-of-force reports — known as a “Response to Resistive Behavior Report” — but even those records generally include only a terse description of the injuries, such as “dog bite to right thigh” or “minor dog bite to right arm.”
“Sometimes in the report, it’s not there that they were taken down by a K-9 unit, but I see all the injuries and I will ask, ‘What happened?’” said Pam Johnson, who recently retired as a juvenile court judge. “‘The dogs,’ and that’s how the kids will refer to them, ‘They put the dogs on me.’
“Is it necessary to have that level of force?” she asked.
BRPD policies give their K-9 officers much more leeway over when and how they can use their police dogs than other peer agencies, such as the New Orleans Police Department.
The Baton Rouge K-9 use policy, which the police department last reviewed in 2016, says deployments are “based on the severity of the crime, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat” and whether the person is resisting or trying to avoid arrest. The policy does not address juveniles in any way.
By comparison, the current NOPD policy declares that dogs “shall not be used to apprehend suspects known to be juveniles who also pose no immediate threat of serious injury.” It also says “mere flight alone is insufficient” reason to deploy a dog.
BRPD declined to say why its policies are looser than those of other big-city departments. But Martin, the BRPD captain and former K-9 unit commander, defended the frequent use of police dogs, arguing that running from police is a sign of trouble.
“It's an unfortunate thing that they were bit — but it happens in the act of them committing a serious crime,” Martin said.
The BRPD policy notes Internal Affairs must be notified when bites require stitches or result in broken bones.
Martin did not directly address the glaring racial disparities found in BRPD dog victims, or the high number of juveniles injured, other than saying that officers frequently don’t know the race or age of a suspect before they release a dog.
NOPD’s much stricter policy has proven effective in recent years at minimizing the use of K-9s. Not a single person was bitten by an NOPD dog from 2017 to 2019, according to agency records — the same period in which Baton Rouge police, patrolling a much smaller city, used dogs to bite at least 146 people.
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The policy in New Orleans was the result of a federal investigation of the department. Christy Lopez, a former U.S. Justice Department official who helped manage that investigation, said K-9 usage needs better oversight across the country, given the severe injuries police dogs can inflict. She said a dog bite is “much more akin to being shot” than almost any other use of police force.
“There’s just something so uncivilized, and really savage is the word that comes to mind, about using police dogs to attack humans,” Lopez said. “We really don’t want officers using this unless it’s really necessary.”
'Scared to death of police'
Lester had just turned 14 when BRPD officers in October 2019 arrested him and a friend outside a recently burglarized North Foster Drive furniture store. Lester’s friend froze and surrendered, but Lester, whose mother asked that his last name not be used because he’s a minor, ran and hid nearby.
He soon gave himself up with his hands raised, Lester said, as police, guns drawn, ordered him onto the ground. Only then, Lester said, did police set a dog loose on him. It ripped right through a pair of jeans and into his right leg “almost to the bone,” tearing out a substantial chunk of flesh.
The cops had to pry the dog off as he screamed in pain, said Lester, who is now 15.
“The dog should not have been involved, it wasn’t anything serious,” he said.
His mother, who asked not to be named for fear of antagonizing police, said Lester could barely sleep for two weeks. Lester spent six more weeks on crutches and missed significant time in middle school.
More than a year later, his flesh has healed over, but the bites have left lasting damage. He still walks with a limp, and sometimes finds it difficult to stand. He said he has almost no feeling around the spot of the bite, but it still occasionally shoots with pain.
The emotional trauma, his mother said, has been just as scarring as the physical pain, and has disrupted his education. She described him as “completely different” since the incident.
“He’s basically scared to death of the police now,” she said. “He was into football and stuff and now he just really wants to stay at home, stay close around the family. He thinks he’ll get killed.”
Authorities did not release police or court records regarding Lester’s arrest because he is a juvenile. His mother said he faced a charge related to the burglary, which she said was resolved with probation.
“I know what he was doing wasn’t right, but what he went through could’ve been avoided,” she added. “He didn’t have a weapon, he didn’t have anything in his hands at all. ... I just hate it because they (the police) knew they were dealing with children.”
A fraught history
The use of police dogs in the U.S., especially against Black people, has a troubled history.
During the early 1960s, police in Birmingham, Ala., used their dogs to attack peaceful Black marchers; images of the savage assaults helped elevate the civil rights movement. More recently, a federal probe of Ferguson, Missouri, police following 2015 demonstrations over the police killing of Michael Brown found that “K-9 officers,” or dogs, were repeatedly used excessively, and exclusively, on Black residents.
BRPD has had its own share of controversy over biased policing. After Hurricane Katrina, the agency came under fire — mostly from peer agencies — for its harsh treatment of Black evacuees from New Orleans. In 2016, a cell phone video captured a White Baton Rouge officer shooting and killing Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man, sparking protests around the nation.
Only recently did the department close a decades-long consent decree forcing diversity in its ranks. Even so, BRPD remains much Whiter than the majority-Black city it patrols.
Johnson, the retired juvenile judge, worries about how the constant overuse of police dogs on Baton Rouge children further erodes youths’ perception of police, as she knows many are already so skeptical.
“If it was a human officer that chased down a child, caught the child, and just beat their face up and busted their nose, we’d have a real issue with that, wouldn’t we?” Johnson said. “But it’s the dogs, it’s the K-9 officers.”
She said she also worries about the damage these attacks have on children and their development.
“They’re severe bites, and then what is the toll psychologically?” Johnson said. “It’s a trauma.”
Charles Carey, who got bitten two years ago by a Baton Rouge K-9 after fleeing on his dirt bike, agrees — and disputes a police report that downplayed his wounds.
“Man, that wasn’t no minor injury,” said Carey, now 19. “My leg is still hurting.”
He said police told him they were after stolen dirt bikes. His wasn’t.
Officers arrested him anyway, booking him into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on suspicion of aggravated flight, resisting an officer and marijuana possession, for a small amount they said they found in his pocket. He was booked as an adult under Louisiana law. Court records show the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office did not pursue the charges. BRPD did not specifically discuss his arrest.
Carey said he cleaned his wounds and got around on crutches for two weeks. Two years later, his leg still goes numb when he walks too long, he said, so he’ll sit and massage it back to life.
“They need to do something about dog bites,” said his grandmother, Patricia Rogers. “It’s a problem.”
The Marshall Project’s reporters David Eads, Michelle Pitcher and Weihua Li contributed to this story.
This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for The Marshall Project’s newsletter, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.