Police say dogs help solve crimes. Little evidence supports that.
The 911 call came in on the morning of April 24, 2020. A man was believed to be in the house where his estranged wife resided and was in violation of the protective order against him. Police arrived and illuminated the backyard using flashlights. Jeffery Ryans, a 36-year-old Black man, was smoking cigarettes in the street.
According to footage from the body camera in the incident, police officer Nickolas Pearce ordered him to the ground. He warned that if Ryans refused to adhere, he’d free K9 Tuco. When Pearce and the other officers who arrived walked up, and Ryans was lowered to the floor, Pearce commanded the dog to strike: “Hit! Hit!”
“I’m on the ground,” Ryans exclaimed. “Why are you biting me?”
The man continued shouting and screaming, as the video footage clearly shows. As the police arrested Ryans sitting face-down on the floor, Pearce urged Tuco to let go of its grip.
Ryan’s arrest went ignored until a few months later, and during Black Lives Matter protests, The Salt Lake Tribune published an article and the video footage. As it turned out, the initial 911 call was anything but straightforward. According to a review board’s report, Ryans mistakenly believed the restraining order was removed; his ex-wife had invited him to her home; a child phoned 911.
It’s difficult to determine the frequency police release their dogs on suspects in criminal cases. Salt Lake City has yet to respond to a request for records to determine the number of instances Tuco was deployed. Based on specific estimates, dog bites by police are responsible for bringing around 3,600 people in the U.S. to the emergency room each year. In a varying number of instances, they can be fatal. However, when the Ryans incident became known, Salt Lake City did something that only some municipalities attempted. On August. 12, 2020, one day after The Tribune published its report without advance notice, the city’s mayor announced that it would cease using dogs to “engage with suspects” immediately.
In the years that followed in the months that followed, the district attorney’s office sought documents of all dog deployments. Police found the use of force incidents in 34 cases and 19 videos. The DA has charged Pearce with felony assault aggravated in connection to the incident with Ryans. Ryans has filed a civil complaint. Both cases are currently pending. However, Saltlake City’s abrupt decision had a different effect and created an ideal trial to evaluate three possible hypotheses that police K9s can protect officers, cause more injuries to suspects or increase resistance from suspects in felony arrests. The results provide a broader perspective on long-standing police procedures.
Despite having dogs in use for over 100 years, the law enforcement agencies of the U.S. do not keep complete or reliable records to back claims that police dogs lower criminality or make people safer. There’s a controversy over the number of K9s, also known as police dogs, how often they’re employed, and what they’re used against.
At the beginning of 2023 in 2023, four researchers published an article called “De-fanged,” in the Journal of Experimental Criminology; the team claimed that they were unaware of any “quantitative evaluation of the claimed benefits of K9s in policing.” The group was led by Ian T. Adams, an ex-canine officer who is currently an associate professor within the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina; the authors argued that “There is precious little empirical evidence to support any claims, whether by proponents or critics of police K9 programs.” (Adams acknowledges that he dedicates the research efforts in honor of his previous K9 Partner, Pyro, in the acknowledgments in the research paper. Adams was the subject of a civil lawsuit following the incident in which Pyro assaulted an unarmed man in 2013; the case was dismissed without trial and denied. He didn’t respond to requests to comment on the matter.)
People who support the practice frequently use emotional stories and common sense beliefs, not research studies. Adams The group’s website cites a survey of 255 officers, with 91 percent saying that dogs were “important or very important in protecting” their officers. However, no evidence from the real world is available to prove that dogs help officers be safer. To critics, the idea of policing using dogs does not have evidence-based and experimental proof generally and can cause injuries that can be that severe; they require specialist trauma treatment that is not accessible in an emergency room.
Certain studies suggest that K9s are more likely to attack those of color, an issue exposed in the reports of Ferguson, Missouri. In the national statistics on injuries, another study, based in a particular county in suburban Maryland, has found that White subjects are more likely to be attacked. Yet, a broad coalition of researchers has argued that the past of police dogs throughout North America is inextricably rooted in racism. The pursuit of and brutally slaying African Americans, as the legal scholar Shontel Stewart has argued, “lies deep in the coils of slavery.”
A suspension of Salt Lake City limited the dogs’ use during the arrest and apprehension process. Police in the city confirmed that police are still using K9s to look for drugs and to track down criminal suspects. In a statement published in The Tribune, officials warned that the suspension may be “very dangerous not just for the officer, but the public.” At the very least, such assertions are untested theories. In the case of Saltlake City, the dire warning didn’t come through, and the city experienced virtually no impact.
Madalyn Wasilczuk is an assistant professor in Madalyn Wasilczuk, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, said that the observations before and after indicate the assertion that eliminating K9 units could be “disrupting an important tool for crime fighting or for public safety” could be “overblown or, as it turns out, not true at all.”
She said, “the sky isn’t going to fall if we stop using police dogs.”
The background of police dogs is more common sense than actual scientific evidence regarding the dogs’ capabilities to solve crimes. For instance, the fabled notion that police dogs identify criminal suspects based on the scent of their paws is founded on insufficient scientific research. Researchers observed a person walking across carpeted areas in a 2005 study with over 100 references. Then they examined six dogs who were pre-screened and supposedly followed the scent that was present in the person’s footsteps. (“This is not difficult to them,” Alexandra Horowitz writes in her book “Inside of a Dog.” “They could work out which direction a person had walked in after smelling just five footsteps,” the scientist Ed Yong writes in his book “An Immense World.”) The study did come to a halt because it didn’t report an opposing arm, with no olfactory or visual stimuli such as olfactory or visual stimuli the test was a concise 100 meters trail through the ground — a collection of carpet squares that isn’t the norm for people who have to flee from police. Also, an earlier study conducted by the same researchers examined a bigger pool of police dogs, which included 22 that were bred by police in Northern Ireland, and nearly two-thirds of them didn’t follow the path of the path better than random luck.
In 2014 when Leif Woidtke was an officer at Leipzig University, the German police chief affiliated with Leipzig University began a series of studies that his group carried out, one of the most recent and arguably more thorough efforts to establish that dogs are able to track a person’s footsteps simply by smelling assertion that is often called man trailing. According to critics, the study revealed another aspect of the study: an ineffective experiment.
The experiments of Woidtke took place in 12 urban areas in Saxony, the state of the eastern part of Germany, which includes Leipzig, to replicate the real-world situation. The experiment had seven dogs, which had four police dogs that were trained. Researchers took smell samples from 190 volunteers who were held on gauze pads and another material beneath their armpits for 10 minutes. These participants were considered mock suspects who walked towards a T-shaped junction where they made a left and right turn, then walked 100 meters, or around 330 feet, along the block. A few minutes after, handlers handed their dogs three choices an armpit scent sample cheerful with the scent of two Volunteers (the fake suspect) or an uncontrollable force from an individual who wasn’t present (and an untrue lead). The dogs were then allowed to guide them to the volunteer. Researchers then let the dogs track by using saliva samples. They also collected blood samples taken from seven participants to collect DNA as an additional odor test.
The study was published in Forensic Science International journal in the year 2017, stated not only that police dogs were able to follow the scent trail left on the ground even when they were detecting DNA samples however, but they also correctly observed the volunteers as high as 80 percent of the time.
But critics were able to push back. In February 2019, it was published in the journal a note by Kai-Uwe Goss, an environmental chemist working at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, essentially saying that the research paper was flawed. Goss identified a variety of problems. For instance, the teams started monitoring volunteers just within five minutes of them leaving, which is not a typical scenario. The volunteers remained on the ground until the end of the event, which left an open possibility that the dogs were not necessarily following scent trails that were tracked on the basis. Still, they might have been sniffing the fake suspect’s scents floating through the air. The claims made about DNA, Goss wrote, were utterly absurd: “It is not conceivable that a dog’s nose could do something like a DNA sequencing.”
In the Woidtke study, also based on an assumption of a fundamental nature, Goss claimed: The experiment could not rule out any possibility of a T junction having three possible routes. The suspect could go either right or left or forwards. In over 600 tests, Goss pointed out; the participants could only go left or right. If the participants ruled out one of three possible paths, The study appeared untruly disguised. Participants were given an answer key, limiting the possible routes.
In the meantime, Goss had sent an email regarding the study with Adee Schoon, an expert on animal detection in the Netherlands. They also wrote a letter critiquing the study. However, in this case, the authors claimed they’d discovered evidence of scientific misconduct that suggests data was manipulated. Critics criticized the study for not having the fundamental elements of scientific experiments, which include, as Goss and Schoon noted, the absence of blinding, randomization, inadequate negative controls, and bias of the experimenters. For example, Woidtke and his group claimed that the study drew randomly. However, the results showed that only 25% of the time, the experimenters were drawn to remove harmful odors. Also, the probability that they would pull the smell of a missing person and not draw one of the mock suspects is not random. (Only one out of 88.4 million is likely to remove that small number of negative control.) If the authors couldn’t overcome these problems, they called for an official Retraction.
The journal issued an official “expression of concern,” warning highlighting serious irregularities and alerted readers to avoid applying the research in any situation. (The editors claimed that Woidtke was unwilling to submit the study’s initial data to the journal and, in the absence of that information, the editors claimed they could not prove claims of deliberate misconduct and therefore did not rescind the article. Leipzig University also investigated the paper and issued an investigation declaration.)
In an email they wrote, the authors replied with a note acknowledging that participating handlers may have impacted their findings. “Dog handlers,” Woidtke and co-authors wrote, “were able to improve the chance of obtaining a non-negative sample by avoiding red marked samples,” which often showed negatives. The letter also provided statistical reanalyses, and it was argued that the criticisms regarding the absence of negative samples had no significant effect on the study results. Woidtke, as well as his colleagues, have denied any misconduct. Woidtke has yet to respond to emails seeking comment.
When he spoke to Undark, Goss said that he was frustrated by the circumstances — not just because of how Woidtke handled it, however, but also by the inability to hold him accountable. He analyzed previous research and published a statement in 2021, revealing “very little” evidence that dogs can follow people on scent alone, particularly within 24 hours. Goss advised against using the evidence of men trailing dogs in court. He has been a witness for an expert and has told Undark that he’s convinced jurors that, from an evidentiary perspective, “the dogs are worthless.” Schoon also wrote an article in 2022, saying that the idea can be described as “an attractive theory that attunes with the ideas on how canines hunt, but unfortunately there is no scientific proof of dogs being capable of doing this consistently based on a particular type of training.”
However, Woidtke recently published a critical piece of Goss’s research and cited unpublished doctoral dissertations; the method, he claimed, “corresponds to the natural abilities of dogs.” To which Goss responded, explaining that his numerous pleas for a double-masked replicated study by independent experts went without heed. Goss reiterated a promise that he put out to the entire research community: to award a 1,000 Euro (about 1,000 dollars) prize to any dog-and-handler team that can follow an old-fashioned odor trail for 1 mile. He said that they had yet to accept the proposition. “They still claim they can do it,” the man said to Undark in a statement, adding to Undark that “it’s so unbelievable.”
Even with the asterisk in front of the claims, Woidtke’s paper is still referenced. However, the exact number, such as 82 percent accuracy, is a lie. larger irregularities, the majority of which have to do with ecological validity. results don’t apply to real-world scenarios due to the peculiar conditions created during the test. The way that Schoon said in her article (all-caps the title of her paper): “No experimental study does justice to the actual realities that require the identification of suspects who know they are suspects in a case. Dogs can learn that recognizing nervous individuals can result in a very content handler.”
Another reason to reassess the credulity regarding police dogs, some scholars argue: These practices are inextricably wound up in racial terror. Fanciful tales about dogs avenging crimes against their masters date back thousands of years and feature in medieval bestiaries. But the conquest of North America, independent scholar John J. Ensminger writes in Colonial Latin American Review, doubled as a novel laboratory for “canine aggression in enforcing social order .” European colonizers opened a new chapter by using dogs in war, killing Indigenous and enslaved people, and feeding them to dogs.
“The psychological intent of this civic spectacle was crucial,” Sara E. Johnson, director of the Black Studies Project at the University of California, San Diego, writes about French colonizers of Cuba and the American Quarterly. American Quarterly. “Beyond being used to hunt down black rebels, dogs were employed to publicly consume them in a staged performance of white supremacy and domination.”
The violent spectacle was repeated with the enforcement of slavery. Bloodhounds, in particular, were transformed into the lynch mob, and images of them kicking the enslaved were portrayed by abolitionists to use a symbolic alternative to slavery. Indeed, people’s perception of them was negative at the end of the second half of the 20th century; this was the case with the advent of bloodhounds that could detect scents in London, as per to historical scholar Neil Pemberton, which emerged out of a symbiosis between the police and the elite English dog owners (Arthur Conan Doyle was the author of “Sherlock Holmes” stories, among others).
In 1924 — after an increase in the dog’s use to combat resistance to slavery post-slavery, and in the time of U.S. law enforcement’s redoubled efforts to deploy them, eminent Wallace Craig, an animal psychologist at Harvard University, questioned whether animals could discern between people, which was a crucial factor to know if they’ve tagged the right individual. When some people saw an experiment trial, Craig saw something akin to that of the Clever Hans Effect, which referred to the 20th century’s early horse believed to perform amazing feats, like complicated mathematical equations, sensing involuntary gestures or other subtle signals sent by the human being who was its handler.
Policing dogs with dogs was not just unreliable; Craig observed a pursuit based on the assumption of bias. “In the excitement of the chase,” Craig said, “the white mob has not been particular as to the accuracy of their ‘bloodhounds’ in tracking a single individual.” It was the case that chasers “accepted the result uncritically” each time their dogs pursued anyone Black suspect.
In examining the historical record, Contemporary scholars, such as Tyler D. Parry, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, have also suggested that police K9s continue to be utilized to great effectiveness (not necessarily to serve a practical purpose), which is why they continue to play an essential function of instilling fear and a sense of submission. The issue wasn’t a matter of asking why certain people persist in believing that pseudoscience was rooted in white supremacist terror; he was one of the scholars who posed a more rational question. According to what Parry wrote in a 2020 editorial published in The Washington Post: “How many Black people must be mauled or terrorized before the K-9 units are suspended indefinitely?”
Not long after Salt Lake City suspended its K9 apprehension program in the wake of the attack on Jeffery Ryans, a website affiliated with the Utah State Fraternal Order of Police, a nonprofit organization of cops, attempted to raise $50,000 to save the “outstanding, award-winning K-9 team.” The campaign said one officer (who goes unnamed but presumably refers to Pearce) was being threatened with 15 years in prison for an apprehension that fell within legal and policy constraints. The handlers, it added, were “being handed to the political wolves.” The fundraiser took in $6,775 and is no longer soliciting funds. The K9 program remains indefinitely suspended.
The 2023 “De-fanged” paper quantitatively examined the advantages of police dogs. The information comes from an unidentified city. However, the details refer to “a large municipal policing agency housing one of the oldest K9 programs in the USA,” which was abruptly shut down in August. 12. 2020 which is the same day as Salt Lake City. The study’s researcher, Adams (the previous head of Utah’s FOP but has denied knowing about the fundraising), said in an interview with Undark that he had hoped to see some impact following the decision to end. The co-author of the study and his colleague co-authors Scott Mourtgos, who is currently a police officer for the Salt Lake City Police Department and is a doctoral student from the University of Utah. The University of Utah said he was not expecting to observe any significant changes, which is what’s commonly referred to in research as a non-zero hypothesis. Mourtgos told Undark that he doesn’t represent the department in his work.
The results showed no significant change in one of the researchers’ hypotheses. “We found null across the board,” Mourtgos declared.
Wasilczuk, a legal scholar at The University of South Carolina School of Law, said that the findings are not definitive but significant in this field, marked by a complete absence of empirical evidence. The results, she said, could suggest that cities are in a position to eliminate K9 units but expect to observe no change. “If those dogs aren’t making a substantial contribution to public safety or officer safety or anything,” she said, “then why are we risking even a handful of deaths for them?” In her previous position as the director of a youth protection clinic, which was located situated in Baton Rouge, Wasilczuk said she watched videos showing dogs being commanded to attack males, primarily Black teens. She said the violence claimed starkly contrasted with suspected crimes — for instance, riding as an innocent driver in a stolen vehicle.
In an upcoming law review, Wasilczuk claims that the criminal justice system systematically reduces dog bites, a method of violence. Police tend to minimize or downplay the seriousness of the injuries. Dogs are unpredictable and cannot be controlled by the precise use of a baton or a Taser and can cause fatal injuries. “If you’re going to use such — what I think of as — a dehumanizing mechanism of force that creates very serious injuries, I want to see a justification for what that actually is achieving,” Wasilczuk explained to Undark.
“Would we keep guns that randomly fired at innocent people who are just in the neighborhood walking their dogs?” she added. “No, we wouldn’t.”
The authors don’t see their research findings as a reason to remove apprehension dogs from service. “I don’t think it’s a persuasive case at all,” Adams said to Undark. “It’s the first piece of evidence and should, I think, rattle people.” (Mourtgos agreed, saying it was “reckless, irresponsible, and unscientific” to formulate policies based on a single study.) The study contradicted the views of people who believed in conventional wisdom. Although Adams’ group admits that using dogs to search for criminals wasn’t based on scientific evidence, he viewed the research as a subtle denial of the critics and advocates and remained skeptical in drawing broad conclusions. In particular, Adams said, it’s possible that removing the K9 unit had no impact on the officers’ injuries since the absence of a K9, officers no longer took the same risks that might put them in danger’s ways.
However, Adams knew firsthand that dogs are unpredictable and can cause serious injuries. “I will take a Taser every day for the rest of my life to avoid getting bit,” Adams stated. “A Taser is five seconds of pain. I’m still afflicted with the marks of being attacked by dogs. It’s a different game of injuries.” If other jurisdictions could replicate a similar test aimed at ending using police dogs remains to be seen. Critics and supporters agreed that the article made a compelling argument favoring more evidence. “It’s really uncomfortable being the only paper out there that does something and finds null results,” Adams stated to Undark.
A U.S. city was not better or better for nearly three years when it eliminated its K9 apprehension team. The legal proceedings that have been filed in Salt Lake City remain pending. Pearce, the officer whose dog was a victim of Jeffery Ryan, is scheduled to stand trial in the early 2024 timeframe — a rare case in which prosecutors have filed criminal charges. (Even when there is a lawsuit filed claiming the use of force in breach of Constitutional rights, Wasilczuk claims in her research that “criminal courts offer no remedy” for people victimized by police dogs in the course of an arrest. Consequently, they generally seek damages through civil litigation. Ryans’s lawyers have not responded to a request for comments, and his civil lawsuit is still pending after the conclusion of the court trial.)
Instead of taking a stand on the degree to which dogs protect the public’s safety, as part of a civil suit, jurors must decide if officers’ actions are “reasonable.” The tables could shift how people view police dogs, particularly in images that depict them as weapons. But, “one civil case doesn’t necessarily turn the tide,” she said. “But I do think that if we see more of these cases publicized, if more of them settle or do go to trial, perhaps we will see police departments reevaluating how they deploy dogs, and perhaps departments’ insurance carriers will start putting additional restrictions in place if this becomes a real liability.”
Whatever the outcome, the incident has been a source of lasting damage. The incident allegedly left one civilian unarmed with permanent marks. Ryans suffered a laceration to his left leg. As per his lawsuit, this will cause him to be unable to walk throughout his life.