Former St. Paul Police Chief William Finney will lead a six-month audit of the city’s police K-9 unit following an attack on a bystander last week and a number of other high-profile attacks.
Police Chief Todd Axtell and Mayor Melvin Carter announced the plan Friday and said nothing would be off limits in the probe of how police dogs are used.
Finney said Friday that the K-9 attacks have reached a point that could cause public “unrest, especially when you consider what’s going on nationally” with police-community relations.
Glenn L. Slaughter, 33, was leaving for work on July 6 when he was attacked on the city’s East Side about 1:40 a.m. by police K-9 Suttree. The dog broke free of its collar, ignored several commands from its handler, officer Mark Ross, and attacked Slaughter.
The incident prompted Carter and Axtell on Monday to announce sweeping changes and restrictions to the K-9 unit.
The attack on Slaughter was one of three controversial attacks by St. Paul police dogs in three years: On Sept. 23, 2017, officer Thaddeus Schmidt and his K-9 partner, Gabe, were looking for burglary suspects when the dog attacked bystander Desiree Collins. On June 24, 2016, Frank Baker was mistaken for a suspect and bitten by a dog and kicked by an officer.
“Immediately on these three cases, I think we have a training issue or we have a practice issue or we have a policy issue or we have a personnel issue,” Finney said. “It’s not the dogs. You train the handlers to understand what the dog is doing.”
Police on Friday also confirmed that one of their K-9s, Jaeger, was being handled by officer Christopher Hetland on May 15 when it “nipped” at a 10-year-old boy’s shirt and left a red scratch on his stomach.
The dog and handler were giving a K-9 demonstration to several parents and children at the city’s Rice and Arlington Sports Complex when the boy approached the dog from behind and reached out his hand, said police spokesman Steve Linders.
“The dog turned around quickly and nipped at the boy’s shirt,” Linders said, adding that the boy’s mother declined medical attention for her child.
St. Paul dogs have bitten seven people this year, police said; two of those cases were accidental.
Suttree and Ross were removed from the K-9 unit after the attack on Slaughter. An internal affairs investigation was opened for Ross, but state laws prohibit police from disclosing its exact nature.
Jaeger and Hetland remain in the K-9 unit.
City officials said Friday that Finney would be contracted for six months to conduct the audit. He will be paid $50,000 and receive an additional $15,000 for travel expenses and $35,000 to hire outside experts in the field.
Finney said it was too early to say how the audit would unfold, or whom he would hire as outside experts.
Finney worked as a St. Paul police officer for decades and was chief his last 12 years on the force. He retired in 2004. A lifelong resident of the city, Finney remains active in the community and local politics.
A Star Tribune review earlier this year of six years’ worth of St. Paul police dog bite reports showed that officers lost control of their K-9s on occasion, dogs regularly apprehended people with no commands from handlers and that some bystanders were attacked while officers were following common practices.
The review showed that in eight of 133 K-9 apprehension reports reviewed, officers said they used a verbal command to release their dog from a bite. Most officers used vague language to describe how their K-9 was removed.
The United States Police Canine Association requires all dogs to release a bite on the first verbal cue in order to be certified, but several people bitten by St. Paul K-9s have said the dogs ignored their handlers.
Asked whether he thought disobedience was a problem, Finney said it appeared to be an issue in the Slaughter, Collins and Baker cases.
“I don’t think it’s widespread,” he said. “My sense is it’s not.”
Body camera footage of the attack on Slaughter showed that Suttree ignored more than a dozen orders from his handler to stop the attack. Several people told the Star Tribune that other dogs also ignored their handlers and had to be forcibly removed.
“Anytime you get bit by one of these animals and the animal won’t let go, it’s serious,” said attorney Andy Noel.
Noel and attorney Bob Bennett are representing Slaughter in possible civil action. They also represent Collins, who sued the city, and also represented Baker in his record $2 million settlement with St. Paul.
Finney said he was the best candidate for the audit and would carry out an independent review, despite his long history with St. Paul police.
Some local activists said they welcomed the audit and Finney’s involvement.
“I hope we get some more transparency in terms of the overall use of K-9s,” said Tyrone Terrill, president of the African-American Leadership Council.
The St. Paul NAACP urged Finney and the police to involve the community in the review.
“We look forward to working with Mayor Carter, Chief Axtell and former Chief Finney on this endeavor,” said the group’s president, Dianne Binns.