San Diego Police Department

Police K-9 reform bills advance in California legislature

New statewide standards could impact how police use dogs during arrests

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California is one step closer to changing the way law enforcement agencies use dogs. That includes while making arrests, at public protests and while responding to mental health incidents.

For years, critics have decried a lack of any statewide standards and, in some cases, disagreed with the use of K-9s entirely.

Policies have been largely left up to individual agencies. For example, the San Diego Police Department doesn’t have a search-and-rescue unit, but the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department does. Other agencies use K-9s for crowd control during demonstrations, which is something that SDPD does not do. Several police agencies don’t have a K-9 unit at all.

Law enforcement agencies across the state, including SDPD, however, have expressed concern about restricting the use of K-9s. SDPD told NBC 7 Investigates that the changes would directly result in more officers getting hurt in the line of duty and officers shooting more suspects.

Police also say the mere presence of a barking police K-9 has been shown to increase the likelihood that suspects will surrender peacefully.

Bills move forward to state Senate, getting changed along the way

In late May, AB 2042 and AB 3241 both cleared the California State Assembly and are being debated in state Senate committees. Both bills call for the California police training organization called POST to come up with standards. One would also require police agencies to track and publish how they use dogs. That bill is backed by a police lobbying group and unions. 

The other comes from Assembly Member Corey Jackson out of Riverside County. Initially, his bill would have essentially equated K-9 use to a lethal weapon, but many police chiefs took issue with that and the bill has since been watered down.

Now, Jackson’s bill calls for establishing guidelines on using dogs to help make an arrest “proportionally,” based on the severity of the suspected offense. It also has some new language about minimizing harm to bystanders and making sure dog handlers have tools on them to help release a bite. 

The two bills are now tied together, and neither can pass without the other. There’s also a good chance both will merge into one.

Groups raise concerns over racial disparities

Critics like the ACLU of Southern California have pointed to studies that indicate that police dogs are used disproportionately on people of color. An NBC 7 investigation seemed to validate some of those concerns.

We analyzed five years of K-9 bite data from SDPD. During that time, dogs bit 161 people, and 66% of them were Black or Hispanic, even though they only make up 36% of the city’s population.

When NBC 7 asked about that racial disparity, San Diego’s then-police Chief David Nisleit, who retired this week, said bites are a result of a suspect’s behavior, not their race. Some groups like the ACLU have pushed back on that, though, and say neither bill goes far enough to restrict their use.

Critics also raise moral questions about the use of police dogs on suspects experiencing a mental health crisis. While the department says its dogs have never killed anyone, several suspects have been shot and killed after a K-9 was deployed.

Both bills will have to clear the rules committee in the Senate before going up for another vote on the Senate floor. If more changes are made, they would have to go back for approval before reaching Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk. The legislature has until Aug. 30 to make that happen.

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