Out-Of-Control Florida K-9 Unit Leaves Residents Scarred

Danielle Drake after being "nipped" by a North Port K-9 (image courtesy North Port Police Department via Herald Tribune)
Danielle Drake after being “nipped” by a North Port K-9 (image courtesy North Port Police Department via Herald Tribune)

Yesterday, I told you that the police department in North Port, Florida is under fire after it emerged that its K-9 unit turned a dog loose on Jared Lemay, a teenager who was having suicidal thoughts at the time. Well, it turns out Lemay’s ordeal was only the tip of the iceberg. It only came to light after The (Sarasota) Herald Tribune conducted a devastating investigation into the practices of the North Port K-9 squad this summer. It revealed that numerous people in this Sarasota suburb have been physically and emotionally scarred by a K-9 unit that seems to have little regard for civil rights and basic standards of decency.

The Herald Tribune found that North Port police dogs bit 37 people between 2010 and 2014–more than the K-9 units in five nearby cities combined. Moreover, 37 percent of apprehensions by the North Port K-9 unit ended with a bite. According to Charles Mesloh of Northern Michigan University, a leading researcher on the use of police dogs, anything more than a 30 percent bite rate is a sign of potential abuse. Mesloh, who was once a K-9 handler in nearby Venice, thinks it’s inconceivable for so many people in a single jurisdiction to get bitten “without someone noticing.”

It’s even more disturbing when you look at individual cases. The Herald Tribune found that North Port’s K-9 handlers sicced their dogs on at least five unarmed juveniles–even though best practices for the use of police dogs discourage their use in tracking down juvenile suspects. One of them was Tyler Langston. On New Year’s Night 2014, Langston was at a party being held in a gated community when K-9 handler Keith Bush responded to a complaint that two teenagers were breaking into cars. Langston ran, and Bush unleashed his dog, Tomy, who clamped down on Langston’s lower left leg for anywhere from two to five minutes. Even though Langston was unarmed and not resisting, Bush refused to call Tomy off.

Langston suffered a deep gash on his left calf that required plastic surgery and staples, and is still emotionally scarred from the ordeal. In February 2015, they filed a federal civil rights suit against the city. Bush claims he had probable cause to arrest Langston for the burglaries, but records show that Langston was never arrested. Bush would later gain infamy for telling one of his brother officers to “COME GET UR BITE” when they responded to Lemay’s suicide call later that year.

The K-9 unit also has a bad habit of siccing dogs on people when they don’t have enough evidence to arrest them. In the summer of 2014, Danielle Drake was walking down a street when without any warning, Tomy knocked her down from behind and bit her in the head. Bush would later claim that Drake was suspected of being involved in a hit-and-run accident, and that she hid in a bush before running face-first into Tomy. But that same report claims that Tomy only “nipped” Drake. In truth, Drake needed 34 stitches to close a gash in her left temple. Ultimately, prosecutors declined to file charges against Drake. She still suffers from cluster migraines, and is also emotionally scarred; the sight of police cruisers triggers flashbacks. She, too, plans to sue the city.

A number of other cases involving Bush and Tomy feature significant discrepancies between the police reports and witness accounts. For instance, Bush claimed that he was forced to unleash Tomy on Kyle Crosby when he kept resisting. However, Crosby says that he was laying on a bed when officers punched him several times before Tomy bit him on the left calf for about a minute. Crosby was confined to a wheelchair for five months and had to walk on crutches for two months after that, and says that his left leg is “ruined.”

Tomy has bitten 21 people since joining the force in 2011, more than half of the entire unit’s bite total since 2010. From 2011 to 2014, Tomy’s average bite ratio was 40 percent, including a staggering 50 percent in 2014. That’s very alarming to Mesloh, considering that under normal circumstances few people “want to go toe-to-toe with a dog.”

Bush’s behavior with Lemay would be enough by itself to raise red flags. But combined with these other incidents, the unit’s extremely high bite rate, and the number of people physically and emotionally scarred as a result, the only conclusion you can draw is that this unit is completely out of control. And if the North Port brass isn’t willing to do something about it, it’s time for that brass to go.

Darrell is a 30-something graduate of the University of North Carolina who considers himself a journalist of the old school. An attempt to turn him into a member of the religious right in college only succeeded in turning him into the religious right's worst nightmare--a charismatic Christian who is an unapologetic liberal. His desire to stand up for those who have been scared into silence only increased when he survived an abusive three-year marriage. You may know him on Daily Kos as Christian Dem in NC. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellLucus or connect with him on Facebook. Click here to buy Darrell a Mello Yello.