BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – Here in Kern County, as well as in much of the U.S., law enforcement K-9s are held in special esteem.
They’re often deployed in situations that – if not for their availability – would place human officers in harm’s way. K-9s’ bonds with their handlers are typically close – professional but also very personal. And when they die in the line of duty, they’re mourned with the same respect and sense of loss as their human counterparts.
Witness the outpouring of grief for Hannes, the sheriff’s K-9 who died of an on-duty heat stroke last year, and Jango, the Bakersfield police K-9 shot by a cornered suspect in 2021.
KGET spoke to Jango’s handler, Bakersfield Police Officer Brock Mueller, last year.
“If it wasn’t for Jango,” he said, “that would have been officers approaching that guy and, you know, we see it time and time again – criminals will wait till the very last moment to produce a weapon to ambush officers.”
But Department of Justice statistics paint a picture of K-9 deployment in the apprehension of suspects that many find troubling. Law enforcement officers, critics say, have long used K-9s to disproportionately target and brutalize Americans of color.
And now, for that reason, two Democratic members of the California Assembly have introduced a bill that would ban the use of police K-9s for arrests, apprehensions and crowd control.
Corey Jackson of Riverside County and Ash Kalra of San Jose this week introduced AB 742 to “end a deeply racialized and harmful practice” of siccing K-9s on people – criminal suspects, but also sometimes innocent bystanders.
The bill addresses that, Jackson said.
“In 2020 and 2021, we had 186 cases where K-9s seriously injured or killed somebody,” he said, “and people are getting hurt more from K-9s than are getting hurt from batons or tasers.”
Police are twice as likely to turn K-9s loose on people of color than on whites, according data from the state Department of Justice. 69 percent of persons injured by K-9s in 2021, according to the DOJ, were black or Latino.
But Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood had this to say about the bill.
“It’s just taking another tool out of our toolbox,” he said. “It’s getting to the point where all we have left is firearms, and we’re trying to minimize that. At this rate we won’t have a lot of options left.”
However, Jackson said it’s impossible to ignore the data “We don’t think about the narrative about excessive use of force, right?, when it comes to K-9s,” he said. “I was surprised to see it as well. This wasn’t something that I was looking at, getting involved in, but when the data makes things clear, you’ve got to respond to it.”
The ban on K-9s would not include search and rescue operations, tracking, or detection of drugs or explosives.
It would focus instead on the duty K9s seem to get the most exposure for – the service to law enforcement that agencies seem most likely to memorialize with statutes.