In the news recently has been a proposal to provide the Courts with greater sentencing powers for people who are found to have injured a ‘Service Animal’ in the course of its duty i.e a Police dog or Police horse.
Emotively known as ‘Finn’s Law’ in reference to a Police dog who survived a knifing whilst protecting his handler, the proposed legislation – formally entitled the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill – was introduced as a private member’s bill but was derailed following an objection from Tory MP Sir Christopher Chope, and so will have to be reintroduced next month. Time will tell whether it does become part of the established law of the land.
One thing that has struck me in reading reports about this proposed new law, is that a lot of those reports rather misleadingly suggest that a person who harms a Police dog can only be charged with Criminal Damage, which carries a maximum sentence of 6 months in prison. This is not true; a charge could also be brought of causing the animal unnecessary suffering under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and this carries a potential 51 week sentence of imprisonment with it; further more, an offender who used a knife to harm the animal (as in Finn’s case) could already be charged under S.139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 or S.1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953, with possession of a bladed instrument/ offensive weapon, and such a charge carries a potential 4 year custodial sentence.
So I do question whether the Bill is actually necessary; new legislation should be introduced to fill real gaps in the law, not as emotive ‘PR’ stunts…The Bill as it stands is very short and does not in itself change the maximum custodial sentence which can be given under the Animal Welfare Act. All that it does is to clarify that a person cannot claim ‘self defence’ as a justification for inflicting suffering upon a Police dog (or other service animal) IF the animal was at the relevant time (a) under the control of a Police or Prison officer AND (b) the officer was acting in the course of his duties and using the animal in a reasonable way. What does this add to the existing legislation? The ‘self defence’ argument would only be available if it was also found that the suffering inflicted on the animal was ‘necessary’, proportionate and could not reasonably have been avoided. It surely goes without saying, and without any amendment to the existing law, that if an officer acting legitimately in the course of his duties was ‘deploying’ a Police dog to track or bite an offender in a reasonable manner, then logically all suffering inflicted on the animal by the suspect would by definition be unnecessary.
In other words the new Bill appears to be saying…if the injuries are inflicted on a Police dog are not necessary…then they are unnecessary.
Hence my concern that this whole piece of legislation is for ‘Political’ purposes, as oppose to legislative needs.
It is also very easy to be caught up in the hype of this type of case, and anthropomorphize Police dogs with words like ‘hero’ whilst forgetting that they are animals trained to cause potential severe injuries, and without proper training and supervision can cause serious harm not only to ‘criminals’ but to innocent members of the public.
This comes to my mind as I have recently concluded two separate cases involving vicious and unprovoked attacks not upon Police dogs, but by those animals upon innocent members of the public.
The first case involved a 13 year old girl in Derbyshire who was attacked by a Police dog, who had escaped from the kennel in which he was kept at the home of the Police officer who was his handler. My client who was then subjected to an unprovoked attack by the dog whilst walking along the street with her friend, was left with permanent scarring to her arms and legs (and understandable mental scars as well), and she was not the only person so attacked as the dog roamed the street for several hours. I am pleased to report that I have recently concluded my client’s case for £35,000.
In that case, the Police force admitted liability in negligence at a relatively early stage, though they nevertheless offered no apology to the girl and tried to keep from her and her family the details of how and why the Police dog had come to be loose in the streets.
In the second case I have recently concluded, the Police Force in question put up a much greater fight over liability – and it was only after I had obtained extensive disclosure of the police dog’s records that they ‘caved in’, for reasons which I think will become clear as I set out the facts of this matter below.
Severe Injuries from Unprovoked Police Dog Attack
My client, who I will identify as “Andy” for the purposes of this blog, was minding his own business in a suburb of Oxford when he was attacked by a police dog who had been released by his handler to chase a man suspected of involvement in a burglary.
The dog handler lost sight of his dog, who then launched an unprovoked attack upon my client causing serious wounds to his arms and legs. Such was the ferocity of the attack that at one point Andy even feared for his life and unsuccessfully used force to try to get the dog off him (hitting the dog’s head with his hands).
To add insult to injury, when the police officer belatedly arrived at the scene and called his dog off, he then promptly arrested Andy on suspicion of being the man wanted in connection with the burglary and Andy was hauled off to the police station – although he was not there for long before they had to transport him to hospital for treatment for his injuries. Thereafter, he was, of course, released without charge because he was not the man the officer had been looking for.
I have to say at this point, that the officer’s actions on finding Andy and immediately arresting him do fit with a mindset which I often see in cases I handle, whereby if a police officer (or animal as it was in this case) causes someone injury the response is to then arrest that person to try to provide some ‘justification’ (or perhaps a ‘smokescreen’) for the violence inflicted upon them.
Andy (understandably) instructed me to pursue a claim on his behalf against Thames Valley Police, and during the course of my investigations I obtained disclosure of the training records and dog bite reports for the police officer and police dog ‘team’ involved in this incident. I have to say that this disclosure was not provided easily or promptly by the police, and I was required to chase them on several occasions to obtain the full picture. Some of the entries which I will identify below from this particular police dog’s records may indicate why Thames Valley Police were reluctant to release them.
For example, I identified that the dog had bitten 12 people over a 3 year period which in my experience is an unusually high number even taking account the nature of the dog’s work. In a statement, the dog handling officer asserted “police dogs rarely bite people” – something which did not appear to be true in regards to his own animal on the basis of those statistics.
In an earlier incident in April 2012 the records showed that the dog had gone underneath some stairs in a block of flats to locate a suspect and had bitten the suspect on the arm. There was no evidence whatsoever that the suspected offender had been attempting to escape or that he had attacked the dog, and therefore this bite may very well have been unprovoked.
Obviously, out of character incidents, and accidents can occur, but sadly this was not an isolated incident and, as later events will show, I believe that the safety and training section of Thames Valley Police thereafter let down and failed to properly support and protect the dog, his handler and several members of the public, including my client.
The records showed that the operational licence for this team of officer and dog was indeed withdrawn in November 2012, some 8 months prior to the incident with my client Andy. This was as a result of a safety issue involving the dog biting in a situation where he should only have barked.
Police dogs are specifically trained to bark to call their handler’s attention once they have located and ‘cornered’ a suspect, and are not supposed to bite unless the suspect attempts to flee or to attack them.
Clearly this was a further point of concern, but following remedial training, the officer and dog were re-licensed for operational duties 2 weeks later.
However their operational license was again withdrawn in June 2013 following an incident when the police dog was found to have ‘self deployed’ over and above what he was trained to do – in other words to have delivered an unnecessary bite to another ‘cornered’ suspect, rather than just barking to alert his handler (who was very close by) and ‘guarding’ the suspect.
When a police dog teams’ operational licence is withdrawn, guidance contained within the National Police Dog Assessment Model requires that re-assessment be undertaken within the next 30 days following remedial training.
Accordingly an assessment of the team took place later in June 2013 (only a month before the attack on Andy) as a result of which the officer and dog were re-authorised for operational duty notwithstanding the following comments made by their training manager – We identified the dog is still looking for a quick reward and to some extent appears to have been conditioned for it. If the reward is not evident he will either commute back to the handler or look to self reward on the criminal.
To explain, ‘self reward on the criminal’ is a well known term in policing circles and means exactly what you might suspect it does – that the dog takes a bite or bites out of the suspect, even a suspect who is not attempting to flee or resist the dog, simply in order to satisfy its animal instincts.
This was a very serious finding, and I was shocked on reading this report to discover that the dog team had been returned to operational duty with such an issue unresolved.
Yet another completely unjustified biting incident occurred in November 2013 when the dog reacted to a person who was walking up behind him and his handler (and who was in no way a suspect for any criminal offence) by biting this unfortunate passerby. Once again the dog team was suspended from duty, and this time action was taken to place the dog with a different handler in January 2014.
Clearly, in my opinion, this is something which should have been addressed back in June 2013 when the trainer had clearly identified the issue of the dog ‘self rewarding’ or biting without justification.
Sadly no such action had been taken and this dysfunctional police team – comprising in my opinion a dog who was too prone to bite with a handler who had insufficient control over his animal – were allowed to patrol the streets, resulting in the savage attack upon Andy in July 2013.
Once I had obtained full disclosure of all of these records, it may not surprise you to learn that Thames Valley Police soon came to the negotiating table and agreed to pay Andy £10,000 in regards to the injuries inflicted upon him, in respect of which he had been left with permanent scars on his arms and legs.
The law is always a balancing act. Clearly courageous officers and service dogs are entitled to respect and protection in law from criminal violence; but on the other hand there are many occasions when through malice, incompetence or poor training, the perpetrators of unnecessary violence are the police officer and his animal, and the victims of those acts of unlawful violence need their rights protecting as much as Police Dog Finn and his handler.