Police dogs have caused a high number of injuries to children in B.C. and should no longer be used to apprehend youth, Pivot Legal Society is urging.
On Wednesday, Pivot, along with Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, Carrier Sekani Family Services and the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs called on the RCMP and municipal forces to change the practice of tracking kids with police dogs as new details emerge about a 12-year-old girl who was bitten in Prince George.
Pivot has sent a letter to Ron Field, the provincial director of the RCMP police dog service, calling for several changes to police policies.
Under the proposed changes, police would avoid using police dogs whenever youth are suspects, unless they present a clear threat of death or grievous bodily harm to themselves or others.
Police dog bites account for almost half of physical injuries caused by municipal police forces in B.C., and 10 per cent of those are to youth under 18, according to data from the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.
The youngest victim on record was a 12 year-old boy in Vancouver.
Although that data does not include the RCMP, there have been reported cases involving RCMP dogs and children.
In January, parents of a minor in Surrey alleged an RCMP police dog bit their son in the face after he was suspected of stealing an energy drink.
The youth sustained a broken nose and permanent scarring.
“There is tearing, it’s extremely painful and then there’s scarring and the trauma attached to that,” said Douglas King, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society.
“Putting these kids at a social disadvantage doesn’t seem good for anyone in society.”
In the most recent case, a 12-year-old girl in Prince George sustained multiple wounds to her leg after the family alleges a police dog bit her as she tried to run from an altercation with other youth that involved bear spray.
The family alleges that police took her to the hospital where she was treated with 20 stitches, then held her for hours in an adult jail cell before notifying her parents around 2 a.m.
New Westminster police are conducting an independent external investigation into that incident.
“[Police] should be making efforts to identify whether the suspect is a youth,” King said. “In this case it’s believed that police knew the girl so if she got away, there’s nothing to suggest they couldn’t have caught up with her at another time.”
RCMP classify police dogs as an “intermediate weapon” and do not take the suspect’s age into account when determining whether to use a police dog.
Most police dogs in British Columbia are trained in the “bite and hold” method, where a dog is instructed to bite a suspect upon apprehension.
Not all jurisdictions use that method. New Westminster uses a minimum force approach, for example, training the dog to corner the suspect and bark.
The data show that since 2009, New Westminster has only had one reported incident of police dog injuries, compared with nearly 150 in Vancouver.
Rollie Woods, deputy police complaint commissioner, said municipal police are allowed to use force, including a dog, when someone committing an arrestable crime is trying to escape. Although he said he understands that police are more careful when dealing with young people.
Any review into a department’s use of police dogs would have to be ordered by an individual police board, Woods said.
Pivot’s King said he has received dozens of calls over the last two years from parents who say their kids have been injured by police dogs.
In one instance just over a year ago, said King, a youth in Squamish was allegedly bitten by a service dog after covering a police car in silly string with two other minors.
In another case, an RCMP dog allegedly bit an 18-year-old on the Sunshine Coast about two years ago. The injuries to his arm were so severe he had to be airlifted to hospital, King said.
King added he will be contacting the director of police services by the end of the year to ask the province for an inquiry into police dog incidents and children.