When I was 12, I was hired by The Indianapolis News to deliver newspapers to 26 homes and businesses in Danville. One of my more colorful customers was the sheriff of Hendricks County, Russ Carmichael, who lived with his wife in the county jail a block south of the courthouse, a not-uncommon practice in those days. The side yard was enclosed by a tall chain-link fence, housing the sheriff’s dog, a German Shepherd named King, whose presence was intended to discourage jailbreaks. The fly in the ointment was King’s affability, encouraged by the sheriff’s habit of letting the inmates feed him, causing the bonds of affection between the guard and the guarded to deepen. Ironically, the sheriff’s plan worked as intended, for while the dog was reluctant to bite a fleeing inmate, the inmates were reluctant to flee, not wanting to hurt King’s feelings or harm his reputation.
Six days a week for the two years of my journalism career, I gave King a dog biscuit, on the off chance I was ever arrested and needed an advocate. I would toss King a Milk-Bone over the fence, then scrunch up my hand and reach through the chain-links so he could lick the dog biscuit dust from my fingers. Sheriff Carmichael would yell at me from his office window to leave King alone, but ours was an affection that could not be diminished by government coercion, and I have had a high opinion of police dogs ever since.
Having known such nobility, you can imagine my dismay this past autumn when I read in The Indianapolis Star that in a three-year period, police dogs in Indianapolis bit more people than police dogs in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, San Francisco, Fort Worth, Columbus, Seattle, and Washington, D.C, combined. More than half of the people bitten were Black, though Blacks comprise only 28 percent of our city’s population. More than 60 percent of those attacked were unarmed.
While other cities limit the use of dogs for specific violent crimes, the Star reported that Indianapolis police dogs have attacked people for the heinous crimes of rolling through stop signs and sleeping in public. Lest you think these are playful nips, one elderly man, a retired postal employee, was enjoying his backyard garden when a police dog attacked him, inflicting so much damage the man still has difficulty walking and sleeping three years later.
When contacted by the Star, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett declined to speak with a reporter, but did email a reply straight from The Politician’s Handbook of Meaningless Phrases: “These numbers are clear evidence that we must continue to have a dialogue with our community around what they expect not just of the K-9 unit, but of their police department as a whole.” Gee, you think? I know what I expect: a community that properly trains its police officers, monitors them carefully, fires the bad ones, and pays the good ones well. In return, I expect those same officers to not send a dog to do a man’s work.
I find this pattern of behavior repulsive for two reasons. As a lover of dogs, I am troubled whenever anyone, for whatever reason, subverts a dog’s innate friendliness. I’ve lived with dogs all my life and have never known one to be inclined toward violence unless it had been maltreated or mistrained. To train a dog against its disposition is the worst sort of abuse, a disservice to our domesticated friends who ask so little of us but give so much. To replace their trust with ferocity, to corrupt their desire to please by rewarding their viciousness, is contemptible. It is little different than teaching a child to hate.
The second reason is the sad and historic national pattern of police dogs attacking people of color. In the lifetimes of many of us, police dogs in southern cities were unleashed on Black people marching for their civil rights. Remember the fascist Bull Connor who turned police dogs on Black children in Birmingham, Alabama? Remember Bloody Sunday in Selma, when police dogs ripped into Black flesh? These events did not happen in a vacuum. They were an obvious continuation of enslavers terrorizing the enslaved with dogs trained to maim and kill. For God’s sake, Christopher Columbus fed Haitians to his dogs. For too many centuries, too many Black people have experienced what most white people will never experience—the ever-present fear of undeserved assault at the hands of government authority. These atrocities were, and are, born of the same hateful assumption that people of color aren’t people at all, but animals deserving an animal’s death.
When did we agree that the use of aggressive dogs was an acceptable policing practice? Did we vote on that? Did I miss a public hearing? Doctors, nurses, mail carriers, psychiatrists, teachers, firefighters, court employees, emergency medical personnel, and social workers routinely interact with troubled people without unleashing dogs on them. Why have police departments been granted that power with so little consideration of its consequences and dangers? Fortunately, as a result of the Star article and its own internal reviews, IMPD has promised needed changes in its canine policies. We will soon be able to judge both their sincerity and the fruits of their labor.
There is much talk these days of “defunding the police.” That is an unfortunate term I wish had never been uttered, it being both inaccurate and unwise. Nevertheless, I am all for reimagining the role of police in our nation, and bringing others alongside them—social workers and mental health professionals—to achieve higher ends. Until that’s done, abuses will grow and the chasm of mistrust between police and public will fester and spread.
The year I left the lucrative field of journalism to mow lawns, a new jail was built east of town. The old jail is now a county museum. I walk by there every week or so, remembering a dog who took seriously his vow to be man’s best friend. If dogs do go to heaven, King is surely there, still on duty, befriending the sore oppressed and licking the hand that feeds him.