Between 2017 and 2019, Baton Rouge Police Department dogs bit at least 146 people. More than a third were 17 or younger, almost all were Black, and most were unarmed and suspected of nonviolent offenses.
If that sounds extreme, it’s because it is, according to a joint analysis by The Advocate and The Marshall Project, an independent news outlet that covers criminal justice in the United States. The reporters examined police dog bites in 50 departments, the country’s 20 largest cities plus 30 others where the use of K-9 units has been controversial, and found that Baton Rouge led the pack.
Only one other locality studied, the significantly smaller Seattle suburb of Auburn, Wash., had a higher per-capita rate of dog bites. And of the departments for which data was available, Baton Rouge far outpaced next-ranked Huntsville, Ala. in percentage of dog bites involving juveniles, with Baton Rouge at 36% compared to Huntsville’s 17%.
BRPD officials defended the practice, arguing that the people bitten were suspected of felonies and were fleeing or resisting arrest. They pointed out that officers have no way of knowing in the moment whether the suspects they encounter might be armed. They also noted that they often don’t know the race or age of suspected criminals, such as people inside a stolen car, when they first engage them.
Yet in the aggregate, the numbers suggest an alarming trend in the use of dangerous force. And reporters heard tales of terrifying encounters with police from young people who sometimes suffered serious physical harm, often while for being pursued for non-violent offenses.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Downriver in New Orleans, it isn’t, at least anymore.
The federal civil rights consent decree that governs policing in the city targeted the New Orleans Police Department’s historically aggressive use of dogs to apprehend suspects, and the change has been dramatic. The new policy says a police dog should be used more to sniff than to engage, “using its extraordinary olfactory skills to find a concealed subject,” and “shall not be used to apprehend suspects known to be juveniles who also pose no immediate threat of serious injury to the officer or others.”
Under the new policy, the number of K-9 deployments dropped dramatically; in 2020 there were two documented bites following three years with none.
That’s a much more humane approach, one that seemed to inform Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s quick announcement just after the story was published that the police department would stop sending dogs after fleeing juveniles if there’s no immediate threat.
"We need to ensure the trust of the public is earned and maintained. The practice of using K-9 Units in Baton Rouge must be accountable and acceptable. This necessity is heightened even more when a juvenile is involved,” she said.
That’s an appropriate response and a good start, and we hope it will lead to safer, more proportionate policing. We’ll be watching to see if it does.