When police were alerted to a man armed with a 6-foot-long stick who threatened passersby, Spokane Police Officer Todd Belitz and his K-9 partner Zeus were called to the scene.
They were quickly able to persuade the man to set the stick down and cooperate – without resorting to a dog bite.
“Zeus is loud and barks a lot, so the guy put the stick down,” said Sgt. Nate Spiering, who took the helm of the K-9 Unit in 2019.
Spiering has regularly shared stories like this as the use of police dogs has, like many other aspects of modern policing, been called into question in recent years.
“The dogs are an essential de-escalation tool,” Spiering said. “Nothing else can match all the things that the dog can do.”
A proud pillar of the Spokane Police Department for decades, the K-9 Unit has faced unprecedented scrutiny since 2019.
Amid nationwide calls for police accountability last June, the city’s police watchdog released a damning report on the 2019 release of a dog inside the parked vehicle of a suspect, who was bitten. The review said the officers involved “greatly endangered themselves and unnecessarily escalated the situation.”
The Police Ombudsman’s report was released just three days after City Council President Breean Beggs introduced a suite of police reform proposals, including a prohibition on the use of dogs for biting suspects “except as a justified use of deadly force.”
The state Legislature wasn’t far behind, also considering legislation that would limit the use of police dogs.
Neither proposal passed its respective legislative body, but reform remains a possibility.
Through it all, the sergeant in charge of Spokane’s K-9 unit has worked to instill accountability in its officers while imploring legislators not to over-regulate their work, defending police dogs as a vital way to avoid violence, not encourage it.
Those efforts have come a long way in assuaging the concerns of local lawmakers.
“I’m not usually gushy over people, and I feel that this guy takes his job seriously and he wants this unit to be successful,” said Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who leads the council’s Public Safety and Community Health Committee.
Kinnear was not so optimistic following the release of video from the 2019 incident, in which Officer Dan Lesser told the suspect inside a parked vehicle that “I’m going to put a bullet in your brain” before eventually lifting his dog into the vehicle.
The dog bit the man, who had told officers he was in possession of a pistol but also said “I give up.”
“I think we were still shocked about what we saw from that video, and so the impact of that was going to affect how we were going to move forward. What I saw was horrifying and Sgt. Spiering agreed,” Kinnear said.
Spiering took over the K9 Unit in July 2019, just months after the Lesser incident. He declined to comment on the case, citing the $650,000 excessive force claim filed against Officers Scott Lesser and Dan Lesser by the bite victim, Lucas Ellerman, earlier this year.
Beggs has stepped back from his initial request for immediate changes in K-9 policy.
The state Legislature, too, punted on the issue of K-9 reform, instead asking the Criminal Justice Training Commission to investigate best practices. But that move, in combination with new standards for deescalation set by the Legislature this year, was enough to placate the City Council’s leader for now.
“I’m generally content to go through that process,” Beggs said.
Spiering agrees that the Legislature made the right choice by studying the issue further, and is confident that the city already has a high bar for the amount of training its officers receive and in what circumstances a police dog is called on to bite.
Those standards are why the six-dog unit has a “bite ratio” of 3.5% this year, meaning a dog has bitten four of the 114 people it has come into contact with while deployed.
“It’s really low, but I think it’s really low because we spend so much time training for those incidents and making sure our dogs are in a place to assist in de-escalating,” Spiering said.
Though he takes no credit, the bite ratio has dropped sharply under Spiering’s leadership. In 2017, the K-9 unit had 22 bites for a bite ratio of 14% – more than four times higher than the 3% it recorded in 2020.
The vast majority of deployments don’t result in a bite because standards are high, according to Spiering. It’s not enough for a suspect to simply be running from police or refusing orders, they have to pose an immediate threat to the community.
The mere presence of the dog, and not its bite, is usually adequate to gain the compliance of a suspect.
In a 1989 decision, a federal court set a basic maximum of a 30% bite ration and recommended a review be conducted at 20%. But Spokane does better, Spiering said, and always reviews every canine deployment, contact and suspect apprehension.
“It’s kind of archaic if you wait for 20% to look at how you’re doing things,” Spiering said.
Lesser’s actions justified
Dan Lesser resigned from the K-9 unit and issued an apology for the language he used following the release of the video.
For Beggs, the problem with the Lesser case wasn’t just the incident itself, but the department’s review of it. The top of the chain of command, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, said Lesser and his fellow officers’ use of the dog was justified because they believed the suspect to be armed and dangerous.
The key, to Beggs, was that it was captured on camera and the footage was eventually released.
“No one can underestimate what videos do on police practices because you see it and make up your own mind,” Beggs said.
Since the release of the video, Beggs said policy has effectively changed, “we’re just not admitting that we changed anything.”
“I don’t think you can really argue with the data that it’s gotten better,” Beggs said.
His own proposal has been misunderstood, Beggs added.
“They’re a great tool, it is how they are deployed,” Beggs said of police dogs. “The fundamental argument is this – can you set a dog uncontrollably onto someone, biting them, simply for noncooperation?”
Spokane is not the only city, and Washington not the only state, examining the use of police canines.
A 2020 investigation published in USA Today found that use of police dogs can vary widely from city to city, but the consequences of bites can be severe, akin more to a shark bite than that from a domesticated pet.
In Spokane, legislators have pulled back on demands for reform but are keeping a closer eye on the unit.
Spiering provides a monthly report to the City Council with data and anecdotes on the unit’s activity.
“I would be hesitant to say that things have drastically changed, so much as there is ongoing communication between City Council and us, and I think that, for one, we were able to clear up a lot of questions, even if that was just numbers,” Spiering said.
Kinnear said it was “day and night” before and after Spiering began presenting to the Council.
“I think more of the Council members understood what K9s really do, and for me it changed my perspective,” Kinnear said. “They’re not there to rip people to shreds. They’re actually there to protect officers and be that next level to either find somebody or make sure that the officer doesn’t come to harm.”
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