Canines have been used in police work since 1907 when the New York City Police Department became the first law enforcement agency in the United States to formally train and use police canines. By the beginning of 1960, dozens of law enforcement agencies, from Buffalo, New York to Salt Lake City, Utah had established canine units (Wall, 2016). According to Chapman (1990) there were 7,000 canines working in hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country by 1990. The number of canines in those agencies ranged from as many as 125 canines in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Police Department to as few as one canine in numerous agencies across the United States (Chapman, 1990).
One of the reasons police canines have become very popular in law enforcement agencies across the country is due to their unique capability to be used as a locating tool. Their ability to be used as a locating tool is possible because of their powerful sense of smell. Secondly, they are the only tool available to the police which can be stopped once deployed and which cannot be used against an officer should a suspect gain control of it. Finally, police canines have the ability to de-escalate possible use of force situations by their presence while also being capable of being used as a use of force tool (Fleck, n.d.).
Two important use of force cases which have been decided by the United States Supreme Court are Tennessee v. Garner (1985) and Graham v. Connor (1989). While neither of the cases involved police canines specifically, both cases had an effect on police use of force, including the use of canines. The first case, Tennessee v. Garner (1985), dealt with the use of deadly force in apprehension of a fleeing felony suspect.
In this case, a Memphis police officer shot a felony suspect as he ran from the scene of a burglary. Although the Tennessee Supreme Court held that the officer’s actions were reasonable under the current Tennessee state law, the United States Supreme Court held that it is unreasonable, and therefore unconstitutional, to use deadly force against every fleeing felon in every circumstance. The Justices ruled that in order for an officer to be justified in using deadly force in the apprehension of a fleeing felon, the police must have “probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a ‘significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.’” since shooting someone dead certainly falls within the scope of the Fourth Amendment (Sloman, 2004, p.2).
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that we are to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Due to the court’s ruling in Graham v. Connor (1989), all claims against law enforcement for excessive use of force are Fourth Amendment issues (Ross, 2002). Prior to Graham v Connor (1989), police use of force was a concern in America, however, there were mixed opinions on how excessive use of force claims should be handled by lower federal courts. Some courts held that such cases should be dealt with using the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees all free citizens due process.
Using this doctrine, the courts reasoned that individuals have a due process right to “be free from an unreasonable and unwarranted violation of their physical integrity by police officers, even in the course of an otherwise valid arrest” (Ross, 2002, p. 297). Other courts used the “shock the conscience” test which was birthed in Rochin v. California (1952). In Rochin, the court decided that due process prohibits the government from any actions which would “shock the conscience” of the public. This doctrine is faulty in that it depends on determining subjective factors such as intent and motivation (Ross, 2002, p. 297).
The decision by the Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor (1989) had a wide reaching impact on use of force by the government. It also cleared the previous controversy within the lower federal courts. There could no longer be differing opinions as to which amendment to apply to excessive use of force claims, as the “shock the conscience” test no longer applied. In the Graham v. Connor (1989) decision, the Supreme Court laid out a new standard of measuring the government’s use of force against free citizens. The objectively reasonable standard analyzes whether or not another reasonable person would deem the actions of a government agent justified if that person were in the same or similar circumstances equipped with the same or similar information as the government agent. The standard measures the reasonableness of the use of force intrusion upon a free citizen’s Fourth Amendment interests against the “countervailing governmental interests at stake” (Ross, 2002, p. 300).
The Graham v. Connor (1989) decision took into account “the unpredictable and rapidly evolving dynamics” of the use of force environment (Ross, 2002, p. 301). The question to be considered in use of force cases is no longer the intent or motivation of the actor, as they were when applying the “shock the conscience” doctrine. In the Graham v. Connor (1989) decision, the question was whether or not the officer’s actions were objectively reasonable given the “facts and circumstances confronting them” at the time of the incident (Ross, 2002, p. 301). The Supreme Court stated that there was no set definition for what is objectively reasonable. However, when considering the question of objective reasonableness one should consider “the fact that officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the degree of force to use in a particular situation” (Ross, 2002, p. 301). The Supreme Court also developed a test for officers in use of force situations. The test is based upon three factors which are, the severity of the crime at issue, whether or not the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers or the public, and whether the suspect is actively resisting or evading arrest (Ross, 2002). Police canine handlers must also consider these factors when using their canines as a use of force tool.
Other important cases did involve the direct use of police canines as a use of force. One such case was Robinette v. Barnes (1988). In this case a Nashville, Tennessee police canine killed a burglary suspect. The suspect had broken into a car dealership and was hiding under a car when the canine located him. The canine bit the suspect in the neck. The court decided that since canine deployments rarely lead to death, their use cannot be considered deadly force. The court also stated that the totality of the circumstances must be considered when officers are deciding whether or not, and to what degree, to use force (Savage, 1996). In Kerr v. City of West Palm Beach (1989), the United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh District, ruled that the West Palm Beach Police Department failed to both train and supervise their canine handlers and their police canines. Since the police department failed to properly train their canines and handlers, non-violent misdemeanants and innocent people were bitten by police canines. Failing to supervise canine handlers resulted in poorly trained police canines not receiving the corrective training which was needed to ensure proper performance (Fleck, n.d.). These cases impacted police use of force whether or not a police canine was involved. Within our criminal justice system, a single event can have far reaching ramifications. Such an event occurred in August, 2014.
In our next article, I will briefly examine the Department of Justice’s report on the Ferguson Police Department’s K-9 Unit. Their report was erroneous and irresponsible. Keep training like your life depends on it. It does.
Travis Walthall-Master Trainer (Ret.)
Chapman, S. G. (1990). Police Dogs in North America. Springfield, Ill., U.S.A.: Charles C Thomas.
Fleck, T. (n.d.). Canine legal update and opinions. Retrieved April 19, 2018, from
Ross, D. L. (2002). An assessment of Graham v. Connor, ten years later. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 25(2), 294-318. doi:10.1108/13639510210429383
Wall, T. (2016). “For the very existence of civilization”: The police dog and racial terror. American Quarterly, 68(4), 861-882. doi:10.1353/aq.2016.0070