Story by Aaron Kunkler and Ashley Hiruko
Editor’s Note: This story contains graphic images.
Urbano Velazquez used to work as a laborer, milking cows on a dairy farm in southwest King County. But after being bitten by a sheriff’s dog, Velazquez is nearly unemployable as a farm worker.
That’s what’s alleged by Velazquez, who is suing the King County Sheriff’s Office for $2 million after deputies used a K-9 on him in 2016. The Sheriff’s Office declined to comment for this story because of ongoing litigation. A jury trial on the lawsuit is set for September 2020.
Just before 4 a.m. on May 20, 2016, northeast of Enumclaw, Sheriff’s Office deputies responded to a report of domestic violence. A police report states that Velazquez had been drinking alcohol when he allegedly grabbed his wife’s hair.
Deputies, including a K-9 unit, were sent to the house. Dispatchers told the deputies that Velazquez was “known to be armed with a knife.” It is unclear from the report whether dispatchers were told he had a knife on him or not. The report also states his wife was afraid of violence against her escalating.
Deputies arrived, and after talking to Velazquez’s wife, they began searching the area for him with the K-9 Luky, a dog that has since been retired from the department. The incident report said officers were announcing a K-9 search as they went. Deputies using K-9s are required by department procedures to announce the area is being searched by a dog. Further announcements should be made when searching areas where a suspect may not have been able to hear previous calls.
Eventually, deputies noticed a small door leading to a crawlspace beneath the house. The deputies opened the door. At this point the narrative in the lawsuit and the deputies’ statement begin to diverge.
The deputy report states they again announced there would be a K-9 search in the area. Luky was sent in. The deputies could see the dog’s tail wagging and his back legs moving around, signaling that he may have found their target, but deputies couldn’t see or hear Velazquez, they reported. When they encountered Velazquez, deputies told Velazquez to show them his hands, but said that Velazquez didn’t.
“He kept rolling away from my view so I couldn’t see his hands, and only once he had come out to the door could I see [that] both hands had no weapons,” the deputy report states.
The police report doesn’t describe Velazquez being bitten, only that he was later taken to a local hospital to be treated for a dog bite.
But a damages claim filed by attorney Stephen Plowman on behalf of Velazquez with King County’s Office of Risk Management Services contradicts the deputies’ narrative. The claim said when the deputies told Velazquez to exit the crawlspace, he began to. As he was exiting, he saw the dog. Both deputies were shining their flashlights on him, according to the claim.
The lawsuit alleges Velazquez was complying and was leaving the crawlspace with his hands held up in a sign of surrender. When Velazquez was about six feet from the entrance of the crawlspace, he told the officers he was coming out and asked them to restrain the dog, according to the claim. Instead, the lawsuit states Luky attacked him. It also claims that Velazquez’s wife and children heard him trying to surrender while they were inside the house.
The injuries Velazquez suffered were severe. Photos obtained from a records request with the King County Sheriff’s Office show multiple, deep cuts and bite wounds on Velazquez’s right arm. Several inches of exposed muscle and flesh can be seen above his elbow, and deep bite marks sit below his elbow.
The civil rights lawsuit was filed against the county, the Sheriff’s Office and against individual deputies in federal district court. In the lawsuit, Plowman wrote that Luky tore out “significant flesh portions which damaged nerves, arm functionality and muscle ability. Velazquez is permanently disfigured and disabled in his right arm as a result of the dog attack.”
The lawsuit states that Velazquez was a laborer and used his hands for work.
“They’re told that he is harmless and once you identify and locate a person, what’s the point of taking a dog and saying ‘Go rip his face off, or rip his arm off and drag him out?’” Plowman said in an interview. “Where’s he going to go? He’s 60 years old. There’s no other opening in that basement, so he can’t get out of it. There’s something really inhumane and insensitive about the whole thing.”
Velazquez was booked on one gross misdemeanor domestic violence charge.
Use of K-9s becomes more prevalent
The number of times King County Sheriff’s Office deputies have used K-9 units to track suspects has grown. In 2016, there were 324 tracks initiated, 332 in 2017, and 356 in 2018. The Sheriff’s Office did not provide the number of tracks prior to 2016, citing a change in staff that affected records management.
Based on records obtained for this story, the percentage of K-9 tracks that resulted in use of force investigations between 2016 and 2018 also increased by about 2%. A use of force is defined as any time a deputy uses physical force to apprehend or subdue someone. This includes using things like tasers, guns, dogs or punching people. In some cases, internal investigations are opened on uses of force.
County documents show the number of internal use of force investigations involving K-9 units increased between 2013 and 2018.
There were five K-9 use of force investigations each year in 2013 and 2014. This increased to seven in 2015 and nine in 2016. The number of investigations grew to 15 and 18 in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Despite the increase, the instances of K-9 tracks resulting in a use of force investigation is small compared to other measures. An Office of Law Enforcement oversight report showed that during 2015 and 2016 combined, tasers were the most commonly utilized method, accounting for 54% of use of force incidents. Canines accounted for less than 5% of use of force instances, according to records.
Policy and philosophy
As a matter of policy, deputies are allowed to use K-9s under specific situations. The department’s standard operating procedures manual sheds some light on how and when the decision is made to use K-9s.
These situations include when a person is hiding, and sending an officer in could potentially put the officer in danger. Dogs also can be used when there is a reasonable belief that a suspect could be violent, or if a suspect is resisting arrest and deputies believe K-9 units are needed to apprehend them.
Even still there was no guidance in the operating procedures which state when deputies should call off a dog. However, the officer narrative alluded to their practices. Deputies said they told Velazquez to show his hands, and that Velazquez was rolling away, and only when he came out were they able to see his hands were free of any weapons. It’s not clear from the narrative when Luky was recalled.
And there are two broad philosophies for using K-9 dogs: bite and hold and bark and hold. The first involves using dogs to both track and bite suspects to gain compliance. The second is a European-developed model where dogs locate the suspect and circle the area while barking.
More info comes from Tisha Jones, certification manager for the Criminal Justice Training Commission, which certifies K-9 units, said they train dogs to state standards. It’s up to individual agencies to decide what role the dogs will serve, and what philosophies of use to apply.
Bob Eden is the director of Eden Consulting Group, a Canadian-based organization that frequently facilitates K-9 training in the U.S. Eden has more than three decades of experience in training police dogs. He said ideally a bite and hold training will give officers more control over when their dog bites. Dogs that bark and hold also can bite if a person is being violent or belligerent.
The bark and hold technique was developed in Europe, where dogs were used to patrol borders, Eden said. But people learned to armor their arm, let the dog bite, and then stab the dog to death before their handlers caught up, he said. In the U.S., the technique isn’t as effective, he said.
“In this day and age, with the amount of weapons we have in the country, it presents its own issues,” Eden said.
Bark and hold also lets the dog decide when to bite — like if a subject is fighting back — instead of a handler. And dogs can make mistakes. If someone is drunk and stumbling, the dog might not be able to differentiate between that behavior and aggression, and as a result could bite, Eden said.
But Plowman, the attorney representing Velazquez, questioned whether sending a dog after his client was the right call in this instance.
“There are times absolutely, get the dogs out find somebody that’s hiding, train your animal correctly to stop and detain,” he said. “But having an animal tear somebody apart so they can’t milk a cow again — what are we becoming, really?”