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 dog bites in recent years.
Police Chief Todd Axtell and Mayor Melvin Carter announced the plan Friday morning and said nothing would be off limits in the probe of how police dogs are used.
“Chief Finney is a national expert who knows both our community and our police department very well,” Carter said in the written statement. “I look forward to his assessment, and to working with Chief Axtell to ensure our canine unit and our entire department have the training, tools and resources to serve our city well.”
Finney said Friday that St. Paul’s dog bites have reached a point that could cause public “unrest, especially when you consider what’s going on nationally.”
Glenn L. Slaughter, 33, was leaving for work on July 6 when he was bitten on the city’s East Side shortly before 2 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 two male burglary suspects when the dog turned around a dumpster on a 20-foot lead and clamped down on bystander Desiree Collins. On June 24, 2016, Frank Baker was wrongly mistaken for a suspect and bitten by a dog. He was also kicked by an officer, and reached a $2 million settlement with the city for the incident.
“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.”
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 Friday that no contract has been signed for his work. He said Carter first reached out to him earlier in the week to ask for his insights on the matter, and later asked him to investigate the unit.
Finney said it was too early to say how it would unfold, or who he would hire as outside experts.
Finney planned to first take a look at Slaughter’s case and two other recent dog bites. He said received resumes by outside people who expressed interest in examining the unit. He declined to identify them.
Finney served as St. Paul police chief for 12 years, retiring in 2004. A lifelong resident of the city, he remains active in the community and local politics.
“The St. Paul Police Department is absolutely committed to achieving excellence in all that we do,” Axtell said in the written statement. “I agree with Mayor Carter that we have found the right person to help us move forward and welcome the audit of our canine unit by a well-respected law enforcement professional with deep ties to our community.”
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 instruction from handlers and that some bystanders were attacked while officers were following common practices.
The reviewed showed that in eight of 133 K-9 apprehension reports filed between 2006 and mid-December 2017, officers said they used a verbal command to release their dog from a bite. It wasn’t always clear whether the order was followed. Most officers used vague language such as “removed” to describe how their K-9 was separated from a bite.
The United States Police Canine Association requires all dogs to release a bite on the first verbal cue in order to be certified, but many people bitten by St. Paul’s K-9s said the dogs ignored their handlers.
Asked whether he thought St. Paul’s dogs were disobeying orders to release a bite, Finney said it appeared to be an issue in three recent cases, but that he didn’t believe it was a larger issue.
“…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 and release the bite. Multiple people told the Star Tribune that other dogs in unrelated incidents refused to release their bites, and had to be forcibly removed by officers.
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 and familiarity with many people in the department and city.
Earlier this year, St. Paul police said their K-9s were responsible for 10 accidental bites between 2016 and early 2018. That accounting did not include Slaughter’s incident, and police have not said whether his case is the 11th, or, whether there have been additional accidental bites.
In 2013, Karen Shafer was attacked by police dog Rebel. St. Paul reached a $20,000 settlement with Shafer. She was in her backyard when the dog broke from its pursuit of a car thief, bit her and chased after her as she fled into her home, where the attack continued. The dog bit her several times, resulting in 17 stitches in her right hand, left leg and left arm.
Shafer has also said that Rebel ignored orders to release her.
Ross and Suttree were removed from the K-9 unit after the attack on Slaughter.
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708