Officers fear some K-9 programs will end under proposed police reform legislation

Officers fear some K-9 programs will end under proposed police reform legislation

PLYMOUTH, Mass. — Local law enforcement officers say the current language in proposed police reform legislation could lead to less work for their K-9 partners and an end to some K-9 programs. 

Plymouth County Sheriff’s Lt. James Creed, who received a Medal of Honor from Gov. Charlie Baker for his heroic actions during a 2016 Taunton stabbing rampage, has written letters to the governor and state leaders, asking them to adjust the language in the bills and clarify appropriate use of the dogs. 

Creed cites House Bill 4886, which defines one example of an “‘officer-involved injury or death', any event during which an officer… attacks a person using a dog, actually or proximately causing injury or death of another.” 

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“There’s some language in there that I think was well-intentioned, but I think it may be a little bit problematic for us,” Creed told Boston 25 News Monday. “They use the word ‘attack dog,’ when they refer to our dogs. We don’t usually call our dogs that. Our dogs bite and hold; they don’t attack… We train them to bite once and hold. They usually get an extremity, and they hold until release, so there’s minimal damage to a person if they actually have to bite them. But our bite ratio is act very low.” 

Creed said the department’s K-9 Unit located about 50 people last year, five of which involved bites. 

One of Creed’s two K-9 partners is named Heath, in honor of George Heath, a beloved teacher who was killed while defending a waitress who was being stabbed in the Taunton Bertucci’s on that May day in 2016.

Creed, who was off duty enjoying dinner with his wife, ordered the attacker, Arthur DaRosa, to drop his knife. When DaRosa refused to let go of his weapon and continued charging, Creed fatally shot him.

Creed has since become friends with George Heath’s wife, Rosemary. It was with her blessing that Creed named his dog after her late husband.

K-9 Heath specializes in tracking, searching and apprehending, while Creed’s other K-9 partner, Boing – a small nine-year-old Border Terrier – specializes in narcotics. 

“We train them so that they track very calmly,” Creed said of training dogs for searches. “They can track a child the same way they track a bad guy. And the difference is, is how the subject acts at the end.” 

The legislation would also make it unlawful for officers to “release a dog to control or influence a person’s behavior unless: de-escalation tactics have been attempted and failed or are not feasible based on the totality of the circumstances; and the measures used are necessary to prevent imminent harm and the foreseeable harm inflicted by the… dog is proportionate to the threat of imminent harm.” 

While Creed said he and his fellow officers welcome change in law enforcement, he believes the language involving K-9s is too broad and confusion about their use will prevent some towns from using dogs, particularly in important victim searches. K-9 programs could simply end, Creed fears. 

“The dog that might have been there that does that patrol and bite work is also that same dog that could find the missing person, the missing child, the missing elderly person,” Creed said. “And if this was to go into law, some departments might drop those programs, and you might have to wait from further away. And minutes count, especially in the winter and the summer. We get a lot of missing autistic kids, missing elderly people, and time is of the essence.” 

Acknowledging that excessive force must be addressed, Creed says K-9 training has changed in recent years to diminish use of force. Often, K-9s are muzzled, unable to bite, when responding to scenes and in crowd control. Also, the sheer presence of a police dog often deescalates a tense situation without ever deploying the dog.

In his letter to the governor, Creed cites a dispute between two biker gangs last April during which officers handling K-9s positioned themselves between the gangs and were able to de-escalate the situation, with both groups finally dispersing. A ranking member of one gang later told officers he would have taken on the police and the rival gang but was not willing to fight the dogs, Creed wrote. 

“There’s a lot of changes coming, and a lot of the changes are needed,” Creed said. “We’re just trying to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”