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California Police Attack Dogs Cause Permanent Injuries, Disfigurement, and Disability: PHR Expert Medical Opinion

California police deployment of attack dogs has resulted in severe injuries, disfigurement, and disability, according to an expert medical opinion published by a team of clinicians with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today. PHR calls on the California legislature to ban or strictly limit the use of police attack canines in the state.

“Californians have suffered extreme physical and psychological harms from the unleashed brutality of police attack dogs,” said Altaf Saadi, MD, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, and PHR medical expert who co-authored the expert opinion. “We reviewed multiple records of instances where police dogs were deployed against people who posed no threat to police or others. The bites from police attack dogs – which are disproportionately weaponized against Black Californians – cause deep and lasting wounds that often result in long-term pain and permanent disability, including nerve injury, loss of function of arms and legs, disfigurement, and enduring psychological trauma.”

“The medical impacts from police attack dogs should prompt the California legislature to ban or strictly limit this outdated, ineffective, and destructive police weapon,” said Dr. Saadi.

In Unleashed Brutality: An Expert Medical Opinion on the Health Harms from California Police Attack Dogs,” a multidisciplinary team of clinicians conducted a scientific literature review and analyzed data from 30 cases in California involving police canine bites in recent years. The 30 cases were obtained by the ACLU of Southern California through the California Public Records Act and through litigation filed on behalf of individuals injured by California police canines, which the organization then shared with PHR for independent medical review. The cases contained varied records, including but not limited to police records, medical records with some medical information such as substantive descriptions of injuries, medical expert reports, deposition transcripts of medical examiners, and photographs.

In the 30 reviewed cases, police attack canines were deployed against people who appeared to pose no threat of danger to police officers or to others. The attack canines were used when people called for help for relatives experiencing behavioral health crises or intimate partner violence, in cases of minor crimes like petty theft, nonviolent crimes, traffic violations, and in one case a police dog attacked a sleeping woman.

Police attack canines cannot distinguish between bystanders and suspects, resulting in multiple instances of long-lasting injuries to bystanders and even police officers. Sometimes, bystanders even included children. In some cases, without receiving a command to attack, the dogs lunged at people, biting them and tearing into their skin and muscle, also causing serious injuries. In other instances, attack dogs failed to release their victims after verbal commands from police officers, resulting in even worse injuries as the officers tried to tear the dogs off their victims. 

PHR’s expert medical opinion publishes alongside a new report from ACLU California Action, “Weaponizing Dogs: The Brutal and Outdated Practice of Police Attack Dogs.” The report examines the practice of using attack dogs to bite and maim hundreds of California residents, the significant harms caused by this practice, and the barriers to transparency and accountability for police use of attack dogs across 37 police agencies across California.

“The vast majority of Californians severely injured by police attack dogs are not armed with any weapon, according to data reported by police agencies to the CA Department of Justice,” said  Carmen-Nicole Cox, director of government affairs at ACLU California Action. “The state of California must act with urgency to protect the public and enact legislation addressing police agencies’ use of attack dogs.” 

While inconsistent reporting across the United States’ patchwork of police agencies limits the available data on police dog injuries, one retrospective study of data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System found more than 32,000 emergency visits due to police dog bites from 2005–2013. People sustaining police dog bite injuries are more likely to sustain multiple bites, with one study finding that more than half (57 percent) sustained three or more bites in a single attack. Another study comparing police dog bites with domestic (nonpolice) dog bites similarly found that police dog victims were more likely to be bitten multiple times as well as hospitalized more often.

PHR’s medical expert opinion details a sample of the severe and varied health impacts of police attack dogs. The reviewed cases show harms such as severe pain from deep wounds requiring surgical repair; infectious complications; traumatic brain injuries; permanent disfigurement; blood vessel damage; loss of mobility or bodily functions; cognitive impairment; and mental health consequences, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Expenses for medical care following police dog bites were often exorbitant, requiring costly specialists, surgical procedures, hospitalizations, multiple medications, and frequent medical visits for ongoing medical issues. 

One Los Angeles-based study found that more than half of people presenting to emergency departments with police canine bites were hospitalized, with a median hospital stay of three days – aligning with the PHR expert medical opinion finding that police dog bites were usually severe. The bite force of a trained police dog can exceed 4,000 pounds per square inch (psi), which is the equivalent pressure of a rhinoceros balancing on a postage stamp.

“Even as someone who has researched the health impacts of police violence, I was shocked to learn of the extent of injuries resulting from police attack dogs. The impacts go beyond the acute injury of the bite, including lifelong ramifications from the severe injuries, psychological trauma, exorbitant medical costs, and losses to society from people becoming disabled and unable to work,” said Dr. Saadi.

“Whether you are at a traffic stop, calling for help with a loved one with mental illness, involved in a petty crime, or simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, no one deserves the severe health complications from a police attack dog. California lawmakers should act before more lives are destroyed in the jaws of attack dogs,” said Dr. Saadi.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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