Systemic issues with training, supervision and record-keeping plagued the St. Paul police K-9 unit over several years and partly contributed to attacks on innocent bystanders, according to an audit released Friday.
The 17-page report issued 37 recommendations, including developing more arrest options officers can use instead of deploying a K-9 for human apprehension; using "time, distance, cover and options" to slow human-dog encounters; and emphasizing "the canine's primary purpose as a locating tool."
"The recent accidental bites can be attributed in part to inadequacies within the canine unit connected to outdated training practices, organizational structure, and a lack of understanding of trends and inadequacies due to a nonfunctioning record keeping system," the report said. "Additionally, protocols related to tracking and canine handling in a crowded urban environment were not adequately understood and practiced."
The audit also called for amending restrictions that Mayor Melvin Carter and Chief Todd Axtell placed on the unit in July after K-9 Suttree broke free of its collar and mauled bystander Glenn Slaughter. Carter and Axtell ordered the audit at that time.
"This audit offers an important opportunity to ensure our canine unit has the tools, resources and training to serve our entire city well," Carter said in a written statement co-issued with Axtell. "I … look forward to working with Chief Axtell to review its findings and develop an implementation plan right away."
Relaxing restrictions doesn't sit well with attorney Bob Bennett, who won a $75,000 settlement for Slaughter and who has represented several K-9 bite victims in St. Paul and across Minnesota.
"They desperately want to use the dogs," Bennett said of the police.
The audit, led by former St. Paul Police Chief Bill Finney, said the restrictions "do not allow the unit to fully meet its mission" and should be amended.
A few key changes made in response to the Slaughter attack were limiting the deployment of dogs to incidents where officers or citizens face "a clear and immediate danger" and requiring shorter leashes.
Bennett has criticized the common practice of sending dogs out on 20-foot leashes to track suspects.
The technique was being used when a St. Paul K-9 disappeared around a dumpster and out of his handler's field of vision and attacked Bennett's client, Desiree Collins, in 2017 while she was taking out the trash.
Bennett was skeptical of the audit's purpose and findings.
"My guess is that they were looking for ways that they could continue use of the St. Paul K-9 unit, and this is an attempt to calm those that think those days should be ended," he said. "And I frankly don't see any reason for calm."
St. Paul police spokesman Sgt. Mike Ernster said there have been no K-9 apprehensions since Suttree's July 6 attack on Slaughter, who was walking to his car at the time.
It's too early to say how the department might relax the restrictions or how it would put the audit's recommendations into practice, he said.
"We'll be evaluating in the coming weeks how to implement any of the recommendations," Ernster said.
Axtell said the department's K-9 unit is "among the best in the country" but would grow from the audit.
"We can and will do more to improve," Axtell said, "and this audit provides a blueprint to follow as we move forward."
Finney received $50,000 and contractor Don Slavik was paid $20,000 for work on the audit.
Finney reviewed all 12 "accidental" bites that occurred from 2012 to 2018, and "selected cases" of other bites from the same time period. The department logged a total of 142 K-9 apprehensions in that time. It's unclear how many nonaccidental bites were reviewed.
The audit also included several meetings with community members, a comparison of St. Paul's policies with similarly sized departments and interviews with police leadership and current and former K-9 handlers, among other efforts.
Bennett was critical of the audit's use of "accidental" to differentiate the K-9 apprehensions, noting that police use the same handling techniques whether a suspect or bystander is bitten.
"The Desiree Collins bite wasn't accidental," Bennett said. "The truth of the matter is [the dogs] cannot distinguish between one human scent and another. If they pick up on a human scent, they're going to hit on the first human whether it's the suspect or not."
A Star Tribune review of 133 St. Paul K-9 apprehensions between January 2012 and mid-December 2017 found that dogs were overwhelmingly used on unarmed, nonviolent offenders who were fleeing or hiding from police.
Dogs were regularly allowed to apprehend people with no additional commands from handlers, and bystanders were attacked while officers were following common practices.
In about half of all apprehensions, handlers reported that the first time they saw a person was after their K-9 had made an apprehension, often pulling the person out from behind a building or from under bushes and other hiding places. Handlers in 22 cases, or 16 percent, specifically noted that they gave their K-9 a verbal command to apprehend a suspect.
The audit didn't address those issues, or the common complaint from bite victims, including Collins, that K-9s often ignore handlers' orders to release a bite.
Tyrone Terrill, president of the African American Leadership Council, said he was part of several community discussions conducted for the audit. Some community members had proposed requiring K-9s to wear muzzles, he said, which didn't make the audit's list of recommendations.
"Putting dogs on human beings should not be happening in 2019," said Terrill, adding that he was willing to see if changes would improve St. Paul's performance.
Among the audit's other findings: handlers trained themselves 66 percent of the time and often scored and reported their own performances; handlers bought their own equipment, leading to "equipment inconsistencies," and handlers varied with when and how they issued verbal warnings about the presence of their dogs.
"It's good information to have," said Dianne Binns, president of the St. Paul NAACP, which was consulted for the audit. "My God, it seems like this is the wild, wild West show — anybody does whatever they want with their dogs. No, no, no; it should have never been like that."