Richmond has long history of controversial police use of violence
RICHMOND, California––Praised in 2018 by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for significantly decreasing use of force without increasing officer fatalities, the Richmond, California police department is now under fire from critics for a marked rise in bites by police dogs, many of them severe, most of them to suspects posing no physical threat to human officers, and several to people who merely had the misfortune to be near police pursuit of a suspect.
Arguably worse, Bay Area News Group reporters Julia Prodis Sulek and Harriet Blair Brown disclosed on December 19, 2021, the Richmond Police Department tried to conceal the city records pertaining to police dog attacks and other police use of violence, in defiance of a 2018 law requiring that such incidents be disclosed.
Police flout law requiring disclosure
That 2018 law has been flouted by 173 California police departments, representing 84% of all California police officers, according to “analysis by a coalition of media organizations known as the California Reporting Project,” Sulek and Brown summarized.
Requesting details of incidents of police use of violence in Richmond occurring since 2014, the Bay Area News Group and the California Reporting Project were initially told that only 13 such incidents had occurred.
Yet more than that were already on public record.
“So the media groups sued Richmond and won perhaps the most sweeping disclosure order California has yet seen under the terms of the 2018 law, opening a torrent of other records,” recounted Sulek and Brown.
Average of more than 10 bites per year causing “significant injuries”
The Richmond records “showed Richmond police used force that caused significant injuries 122 times over a six-year period,” nearly ten times more than the Richmond police department initially acknowledged, “and more than half of those were caused by police dogs,” Sulek and Brown detailed.
The four-member Richmond Police Department canine squad “violently apprehended more than 70 people” during that time, “an average of one every month,” Sulek and Brown found.
Ten bites by Richmond police dogs led to hospitalizations in 2019 alone, Sulek and Brown discovered.
More bites in Richmond than in Chicago, D.C., NYC, & Oakland
By comparison, the Marshall Project, an investigative news organization endowed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), the first African-American member of the Supreme Court, found that “From 2017 to 2019, Chicago reported only one police dog bite. Washington, D.C. reported five. New York City,” with about 80 times the human population of Richmond, “reported 25. Richmond had 38 police dog bite cases during that same period,” Sulek and Brown wrote.
Oakland, with four times the resident population of Richmond and only 12 miles south, had just 13 bites by police dogs from 2015-2019, noted Sulek and Brown, “according to a review of the canine squad by the department’s inspector general.”
Oakland police shot nine suspects during that time. Richmond police shot two, for almost the same rate of lethal use of firearms.
“Black people are disproportionate targets”
Both Oakland and Richmond have crime rates above twice the U.S. national average, but in Richmond, Sulek and Brown wrote, “Black people are disproportionate targets” of police dog bites.
African-Americans currently constitute about 20% of the increasingly gentrified Richmond population, less than half as many as in 1985, when 48% of the population were African-American.
Yet African-Americans, Sulek and Brown found, were “More than half of those bitten by police dogs.”
Oakland, with only about a third as many police dog bites per year as Richmond, is about 70% African-American.
Hodges & Brown
The two senior Richmond canine handlers, Brandon Hodges and Michael Brown, were involved in the most biting incidents, Sulek and Brown learned.
“Hodges and his dog Gunnar injured people in 17 cases, including seven each in 2018 and 2019,” Sulek and Brown wrote. “Brown was involved in 13 cases that caused injuries, including three in the span of one week in February 2018.
“Four other Richmond officers and their police dogs were involved in at least five incidents each,” Sulek and Brown continued.
Two of those Richmond police officers are no longer on the canine squad.
Dogs do more harm than Tasers
“Police dogs typically do more harm than other nonlethal uses of force,” Sulek and Brown explained. “Canine contact was four times more likely to result in great bodily injury than the use of a Taser, one of the department’s other most common types of force.
“Officers often use dogs before threats are clear,” Sulek and Brown found. “More than 80% of the people bitten by dogs were either hiding or running from police; more than 60% were found unarmed.
The Richmond policy on dog use “allows officers to deploy dogs whenever officers believe a suspect has committed or threatened to commit ‘any serious offense,’ and when a person ‘poses an imminent threat of violence,’ is ‘resisting or threatening to resist arrest,’ or is hiding in a place that would be dangerous for officers to enter,” Sulek and Brown reported.
Rules of engagement
But the Richmond policy adds that, “Mere flight from pursuing officers shall not serve as good cause for the use of a canine to apprehend an individual.”
By contrast, Oakland allows use of police dogs only in response to a “forcible violent crime, burglary, or weapons related offense.”
Stipulated Sulek and Brown, “Both cities require a ranking officer to give approval before a dog is let loose, and the handler must alert suspects about the dog, giving them a chance to surrender.”
Richmond police chief Bisa French defended the city record of bites by police dogs by telling Sulek and Brown that arrests and weapons recoveries by the canine unit outnumber bites by nearly 10 to 1, but that record is unremarkable compared to police dog use by other cities.
$60,000 for mauling teens––& $225,000+ for hiding records
Richmond police dog use has cost the city money in lawsuits.
Notably, Sulek and Brown recounted, “In 2017, a pair of teenagers sued the city after a police dog attacked them — instead of a car thief — while they walked home from school. The boy ‘pulled his girlfriend away and turned to bravely shield her body with his own,’” according to court documents. Richmond settled the case for $60,000.
The Richmond attempt to withhold use-of-force records cost taxpayers “$225,000 to pay the media’s lawyers,” Sulek and Brown said, “plus tens of thousands more in the city’s own legal expenses.”
Richmond police shooting made the Black Panthers famous
Richmond has a long history of involvement in public controversy over police use of force, several times in incidents having national ramifications.
Most notoriously, at about 5 a.m. on April 1, 1967 two Contra Costa County sheriff’s deputies responded to a call about a burglary in progress at a North Richmond liquor store. Two suspects fled, ignoring orders to stop, when the deputies arrived. One of the deputies fatally shot suspect Denzil F. Dowell, three days before what would have been Dowell’s 23rd birthday.
A coroner’s jury ruled it a justified use of force, but the Black Panther Party newspaper debuted a few days later with a cover story alleging 11 discrepancies between the account presented to the coroner’s jury and witness testimony, including a claim that Richmond city police were on the scene an hour before the sheriff’s deputies and actually fired the fatal shot.
The article and subsequent Black Panther rallies urging African-Americans to arm themselves projected the Black Panthers into national prominence.
Ku Klux Klan & “The Cowboys”
At least 40 African-American families sued the city of Richmond during the next 15 years over alleged instances of police violence. Robed members of the Ku Klux Klan responded to the incidents in 1981 by leading a “Support Your Local Police” demonstration.
A 1983 lawsuit brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) finally flushed into the open the existence of an alleged white supremacist cadre within the Richmond Police Department who called themselves “The Cowboys.”
The NAACP case in June 1983 brought a court award of $3 million to the families of Richmond police shooting victims Johnny Roman and Michael Guillory.
$525,000 for shooting dog
High-profile court cases inhibiting police from shooting dogs appear to have originated with a 1991 incident in which Richmond police officers shot a dog belonging to the James Fuller family while chasing a burglary suspect through the Fullers’ yard.
The suspect had no relationship to the Fullers, who sued the city.
Responding to the case, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in 1994 ruled that killing a pet without urgent necessity violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting citizens against unreasonable search and seizure, and then re-affirmed the ruling in 1998.
The city of Richmond eventually paid the Fullers a settlement of $525,000.
A similar case followed after Richmond police on July 27, 2006 shot a pit bull named Blu eleven times during a hot pursuit through the yard of an apartment house whose residents included Blu’s owners, Cynthia Peters and Mark Parr.
Recounted San Francisco Chronicle writer Chip Johnson, “The officers had chased a suspect into the apartment building. Blu was in the yard, which was surrounded by a 10-foot-tall Cyclone fence. The officers opened the gate to enter the yard and opened fire with pistols and a shotgun.”
Parr, who objected, was jailed for three hours.
In June 2007 the Richmond city council agreed to pay Peters and Parr a settlement of $210,000, and to pay a third plaintiff, Geneva Walker, $15,000, after she claimed “three bullet casings fired by an officer hit and burned her neck and left her temporarily unable to hear,” summarized San Francisco Chronicle reporter Henry K. Lee.
Peters, 43, and Parr, 46, just a little over a year later, were identified as suspects in a July 25, 2008 purse snatching in Sacramento, California, that victimized an 80-year-old woman.
Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies on August 13, 2008 attempted to arrest Peters and Parr at a nearby Motel 6, but they allegedly released two pit bulls who mauled motel janitor Miguel Gutierrez.
The deputies shot both pit bulls to end the attack. The Sacramento Sheriff’s Department reportedly paid Gutierrez $170,000 for pain and suffering, and $125,000 in medical expenses.
Peters and Parr “also were suspects in similar snatch acts about the same time, according to court documents,” reported Andy Furillo for the Sacramento Bee.
“They eventually pleaded no contest to grand theft, with each sentenced to two years,” Furillo finished.