SACRAMENTO, CA - They can be man's best friend, but police dogs can also be a suspect's worst enemy.
Now some of those suspects are fighting back, suing local police, saying the dogs' handlers have gone way too far.
"It hurts so bad, just to know that those teeth are going through your body," William Zander said.
Years later the wounds remain, physical and otherwise. In hindsight, Zander admits it was a bad idea to try to run from Sacramento County sheriff's deputies, but when they came looking for him at his grandmother's house in April 2010, Zander was scared. It didn't take long for him to come to his senses.
COURT DOCUMENTS: William Zander
"I knew there was nowhere left to run because there was a helicopter on me, and if there was a canine on me, then I knew that they could sniff me out, so I immediately jumped, got down on the ground on my knees and put my hands behind my head as quick as possible so I wouldn't get bit," Zander said.
Daniel Huddleston had a similar experience in Citrus Heights in August 2011.
"I can hear voices, so I just yell, 'hey, I'm over here,' and I'm unarmed, and I'm coming to you, and before I got the 'coming to you' out there, I heard just, 'get him, get him,'" Huddleston said.
COURT DOCUMENTS: Daniel Huddleston
Zander and Huddleston are two of more than a dozen plaintiffs suing area law enforcement agencies for alleged civil rights violations. The lawsuits accuse canine handlers of excessive force, saying officers ordered the dogs to attack suspects even though they weren't resisting.
Although the agencies named in the lawsuits declined News10 requests for interviews, the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department referred us to its Use Of Force policy. The guidelines state, "officers shall use only that force which is reasonable, given the facts and circumstances perceived by the officer at the time of the event ..."
The policy also reads "force used may or may not cause injury, depending upon the actions or resistance level of the subject."
Dr. William Vizzard is a retired federal agent who teaches criminal justice at Sacramento State. He said determining if a suspect is resisting is far from black and white.
"It's potentially possible that an individual believes that what they're doing is compliant, and it isn't perceived as compliant by the officer," Vizzard said.
Ellen Dove represents 19 plaintiffs in cases against the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, the Sacramento Police Department and the Citrus Heights Police Department.
COURT DOCUMENTS: Another case Ellen Dove represents
"I don't think any of my clients in any of these cases were actively resisting at the time of the incident. Sometimes the police report says they were, but those police reports are written by 'cover what you did' officers," Dove said.
Dove believes more lawsuits could follow.
John Lewis says police allowed a dog to bite him after he was no longer able to resist.
"After I was in handcuffs and everything else, there was absolutely no reason whatsoever for that dog to ever bite me again, let alone several times on both my legs," Lewis said.
The lawsuits accuse officers of "deliberately ignoring obvious compliance" and using canines "either for sport or punishment."
"Use of force solely for the purpose of punishment is excessive use of force. It's a question of fact whether or not that happened," Vizzard said.
It's common for police agencies to withhold comment on pending litigation. Late Monday afternoon, News10 received a statement from the Citrus Heights Police Department. They wouldn't comment on specific details, but the statement reads, in part, "... we believe the lawsuit is without merit ..."
It also stressed, "Every officer-involved use of force, including canine use, is subject to a thorough review ..."
By Gabriel Roxas, firstname.lastname@example.org
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