(CN) - Police officers in Springboro, Ohio, may be liable after a poorly trained police dog attacked citizens without direction, the 6th Circuit ruled.
Springboro Police Chief Jeffrey Kruithoff directed Police Officer Nick Clark to form the department's first canine unit in 2004, and Clark chose a dog named Spike from Lynwood Kennels.
The department deployed Spike in the field immediately after the dog and Clark had completed a 300-hour canine handling course and Ohio certified them.
"The evidence shows that Spike was involved in biting incidents with growing frequency in the first three years of his deployment in the field," according to the opinion authored by Judge Bernice Donald. "In 2005, he successfully apprehended three suspects, none of whom were bitten. In 2006, Spike apprehended fourteen suspects, five of whom he bit. In 2007, he bit five of the six suspects apprehended."
Though Clark and Spike were supposed to undergo regular maintenance training, several weeks would sometimes pass between lessons. Spike's state certifications lapsed for several months in the summer of 2007.
Clark says his supervisors failed to allot sufficient time for training.
Ohio recertified on Sept. 27, 2007, and the dog attacked Samuel Campbell on Oct. 21, 2007, after a month without training.
Clark had deployed Spike after suspecting, mistakenly, that Campbell was fleeing after an attempted home invasion. When Spike found Campbell lying down on the ground to avoid the officer's detection, it bit his leg for at least 30 seconds.
Chelsie Gemperline says she was attacked on Oct. 11, 2008, after Spike had experienced another month-long gap in training.
Police had been questioning Gemperline on suspicion of underage drinking. Facing arrest, Gemperline became belligerent, and officers handcuffed her and put her in a squad car.
Gemperline later slid one of her hands out of the cuffs, opened the patrol car window, fled and hid inside of a children's playhouse that she found in a neighboring yard.
Clark had Spike on a 20-foot line to track down the girl, and the pair entered the yard where Gemperline was hiding.
Spike then leaped head first through the playhouse window and began biting Gemperline on her chin and thigh. Clark pried the dog off of the girl after her screams had stopped and she had either passed out or gone into shock.
Campbell filed his suit against the department, Kruithoff and Clark about a week after Gemperline's attack. The girl joined his lawsuit as a co-plaintiff in June 2009.
Though the defendants claimed that they had qualified immunity, a federal judge in Cincinnati refused to grant them summary judgment.
A three-judge appellate panel affirmed last week.
The decision notes that Clark "failed to give warnings to either of the suspects prior to Spike biting them."
"Even more important to this case is the question of whether or not Spike was properly trained," Donald wrote. "In both instances, Spike attacked the suspects without warning or a command from Clark. ... Clark allowed a 'bite and hold' dog, whose training was questionable, to attack two suspects who were not actively fleeing and who, because of proximity, showed no ability to evade police custody.
for excessive force, failure to supervise and failure to properly train.
Citing precedent, Donald said, "there is ample evidence to suggest that Clark acted contrary to clearly established law when he used an inadequately trained canine, without warning, to apprehend two suspects who were not fleeing."
Though Kruithoff had a supervisory role, the court would not let him off the hook.
"Chief Kruithoff allowed Spike in the field even after his training had lapsed," Donald wrote. "He never required appropriate supervision of the canine unit and essentially allowed it to run itself. He failed to establish and publish an official K-9 unit policy, and he was seemingly oblivious to the increasing frequency of dog-bite incidents involving Spike. Furthermore, Chief Kruithoff ignored Clark's many complaints regarding his need to keep Spike up to date on his training. Thus, Chief Kruithoff's apparent indifference to maintaining a properly functioning K-9 unit could be reasonably expected to give rise to just the sort of injuries that occurred. The district court correctly determined that the disputed facts preclude granting summary judgment."
In a partial dissent, Judge David McKeague said Kruithoff and Springboro deserved immunity.
"To hold Kruithoff liable in his individual capacity for injuries shown to be caused by deficiencies in Spike's training or officers' training, plaintiffs must show that Kruithoff 'at least implicitly authorized, approved, or knowingly acquiesced' in the violations and injuries sustained by plaintiffs Campbell and Gemperline," McKeague wrote. "Plaintiffs have neither alleged nor presented any evidence to support a finding of Kruithoff's personal involvement in these incidents."
While Springboro "could be held liable for a policy of deliberate indifference to obvious inadequacies in training or supervision," he added that "the record falls short of establishing a sufficient history of canine-unit-related constitutional violations to put the city on notice of obvious inadequacies."
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