BPD Canine Unit ProposalStirs Review Panel Doubts

By KELI DAILEYSpecial to the Planet
Friday October 17, 2003

When the Berkeley Police Department presented its proposal for a K-9 unit with its civilian oversight commission last week, almost a decade had passed since the city last had a police dog.  

“I think we blew it in terms of deploying and training it,” Police Chief Roy Meisner told the Berkeley Police Review Commission at a South Berkeley Senior Center meeting.  

He was talking about Pepper. 

In the early 90s, when crack cocaine clogged city streets, a black Labrador mix named Pepper was recruited as a “find and bark” drug dog. But city officials and community members said he wasn’t a good fit. So he was reassigned to the California Highway Patrol, where he has recovered over $5 million worth of drugs. 

The chief said the department is looking for a breed of dog that is smart enough to adapt to training and big enough to handle problems. Like a German Shepherd. 

Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, Dutch Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are also being considered. 

The proposal calls for $30,000 for the purchase, care and training of two dogs to enhance the city’s Community Safety Program. The new unit is slated to help locate missing persons and crime scenes and apprehend dangerous suspects.  

According to the proposal, approximately 85 percent of the nation’s police departments have K-9 units, and Berkeley occasionally borrows dogs from neighboring municipalities and agencies, including BART’s K-9 unit.  

But the chief said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates had urged him to create a new canine unit, complete with dogs, handlers and procedures. If approved by Bates and city council, the Berkeley unit could be on the job within six months. 

“This is a big policy change,” Police Review Commissioner Jacqueline Debose said. “I think that it needs to start from the bottom rather than be pushed from the top.” She proposed community hearings to gauge the public’s response to having dogs capable of attacking suspects on Berkeley’s streets. 

Commissioner Jack Radisch said it was hard not to associate the unit with images of Eugene “Bull” Connor, the infamous Birmingham, Alabama, sheriff who ordered police dogs to attack civil rights demonstrators in 1963. 

Chief Meisner said the dogs would not be used for crowd control. 

Instead, he cited the approximately 70 Alzheimer patients and others who walked away from Alta Bates Summit and Herrick hospitals this year. Instead of tying up half of his patrol staff looking for walkaways, the chief said, police could rely on the dogs. 

Two of the seven commissioners present said they supported the creation of the unit, but sought assurances that the dogs would not be used to attack or needlessly maul suspects. 

Andrea Pritchett of Berkeley’s Copwatch, a volunteer organization that monitors police activity, said she was skeptical about any assurances. She said there are reports throughout California about unresisting suspects who are bitten by police dogs. 

“It’s kind of weird to have attack dogs doing search and rescue,” she said. “I’d like to see the documented instances when police couldn’t apprehend or find someone and only a dog could help.”  

“Police dogs are typically used to move people along. That’s what BART does,” Pritchett said. “They don’t search and rescue.” 

The Berkeley Police Review Commission will delay plans for its 30th anniversary celebration, members said, and focus instead on holding open hearings about the police dog program.