In January 2015, Mr. Richard May entered a construction site in Half Moon Bay, California, with his neighbor to help retrieve the neighbor’s cat. An alarm was set off, summoning sheriff’s deputies to the site with a canine. The canine bit Mr. May, who was not resisting, fleeing, or armed, inflicting multiple puncture wounds in his right calf, deep enough to expose underlying fat and limit his ability to bear weight on his injured leg for several weeks.
In August 2019 in West Covina, California, Ms. Laureen Frausto was asleep under a desk inside an abandoned post office when police officers, responding to a call about a possible burglary in the area, deployed a police dog to search the building. Ms. Frausto awoke to excruciating pain from her arm, which was trapped between the dog’s clenched teeth and bleeding profusely. The laceration from the dog’s bite was deep enough to expose fat, muscle, and bone. Ms. Frausto had to undergo more than four surgeries to address the bite injuries that included multiple fractures. She sustained permanent deformation and loss of function in her injured arm. (See Appendix B for descriptions of her injuries and other reported health sequelae from medical records.)
Ms. Frausto and Mr. May are two of hundreds of people who over the past years have been harmed by police canine bites in California. Others include Talmika Bates, Jennifer Fink-Carver, Ronnie Ledesma, Gary Gregory, Jordan Gutierrez, and Jesse Porter, all of whom experienced both acute and long-term – even permanent – health harms as a result of such bites.
In November 2023, a team of five physicians affiliated with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) conducted an independent review of available data on 30 cases in California involving police canine bites at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU SoCal). In 2023, ACLU SoCal had requested, under the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”), records from 28 county and city law enforcement agencies relating to canine apprehension and/or use of force. These requests included, among other things, use of force reports relating to canine apprehensions and/or use of force and information under Senate Bills 1421 and 16 for canine use of force that resulted in serious bodily injury and/or death. These records covered 2019 to the present.
Additionally, ACLU SoCal staff compiled documents made public during litigation filed on behalf of people injured by California police canines. These additional documents, which include pleadings, medical reports, depositions and records of medical examiners, photographs, and other documentation of injuries, covered 2012 to the present although most involved litigation within the past six years.
The ACLU SoCal staff reviewed hundreds of cases through FOIA requests and legal cases and sent PHR 49 cases for medical review. These cases sent to PHR in November 2023 were cases that included at least some medical information such as substantive descriptions of injuries, medical expert reports, medical records, deposition transcripts of medical examiners, photographs, and so on. Cases were not sent if there was no substantive description of injuries due to redactions, failure of the officer to record, or if descriptions of injuries were not entered into court records. PHR reviewed the cases in the order they had been uploaded into the shared electronic folder and was able to complete review of 30 cases within the time constraints of the request.
The available data from each case for this review varied. It ranged from only police reports for many cases to more detailed police records, legal complaints, and depositions in others. Only six cases also included medical record documentation, thus enabling a more detailed medical review. (See Appendix B for brief reviews of medical documentation for these cases.) This variability of available data precluded systematic comparison across cases. The focus, instead, of this assessment is to identify the short- and long-term health effects of canine violence in the reviewed cases. Of note, however, is that documentation of psychological effects such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, or depression stemming from the canine violence were not available for most cases.
In the reviewed cases, police canines were deployed against people who appeared to pose no threat of danger to the police officers or others. Rather, the canines were deployed in cases of minor crimes like petty theft, nonviolent crimes, and even traffic violations. The canines were also deployed on several occasions in buildings or open areas to look for suspects or trespassers. The canines were further deployed when police were called to conduct wellness checks requested by concerned neighbors and toward persons seeking help, such as those experiencing behavioral health crises or intimate partner violence. Police canines did not discriminate in who they attacked and bit young children and other uninvolved bystanders at or near the scene. Those bites were often deep, penetrating multiple layers of skin, fat, and in some of the reviewed cases, even underlying muscle, and exposed bone. In multiple cases, police canines failed to release their bites after a single verbal command or required being pulled away manually by a police officer, resulting in worse injuries.
Health harms were varied. Immediate harms included severe pain from deep wounds requiring extensive stitches or multiple surgical repairs given the depth and severity of the wounds, skin grafting, infectious complications, and traumatic brain injuries. Long-term harms, many lifelong, included disfigurement, scarring, nerve injury, loss of function of arms and legs, cognitive impairment, chronic pain, sequelae from traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health disorders. Costs for medical care in those cases where costs could be estimated were exorbitant, requiring consultations with specialists, surgical procedures, hospitalizations, multiple medications, and frequent medical visits for ongoing medical issues.
The health harms are described below with illustrative examples from the cases sent by ACLU SoCal. In addition, a search was conducted on PubMed using terms like “police canine” and “injuries or bites.” Relevant scientific and medical literature about police canine bites is described below and particular concerns are noted for special populations that were harmed, including children, unhoused people, and people with disabilities.
The physician team conducting the review of these records spanned multiple medical specialties. These include an emergency medicine physician (Dr. William Weber), an infectious disease physician (Dr. Kathryn Himmelstein), a medicine-pediatrics-trained hospitalist physician (Dr. Nora Abo-Sido), and two neurologists (Drs. Altaf Saadi and Minali Nigam). PHR medical director Dr. Michele Heisler, a general internist, conducted a secondary review of the provided documents, contributed to the report, and provided a more detailed discussion of the six cases with medical records/statements. (See Appendix A for physician qualifications.)
 Physicians for Human Rights is a U.S.-based not-for-profit human rights NGO that uses medicine and science to document and advocate against mass atrocities and severe human rights violations around the world. It has a long history of documenting injuries and other adverse effects from police use of excessive force in countries throughout the world.
 SB-1421 Peace officers: release of records,” California Legislative Information, October 1, 2018, https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB1421; “SB-16 Peace officers: release of records,” California Legislative Information, October 1, 2021, https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=202120220SB16