James Waters still has nightmares nearly eight years after a police dog bit him.
On April 10, 2012, Portland police unleashed one of their K-9s, and the dog sunk his teeth into Waters’ leg, barely missing the shin bone.
Officers were following up on a month-old report that Waters, a Black man, had been seen with a gun. (It turned out to be an Airsoft pistol.)
According to a lawsuit he filed against the Portland Police Bureau, Waters was mowing a friend’s lawn on the corner of Northeast 12th Avenue and Ainsworth Street when police made contact—by throwing a concussion grenade.
He thought the bang came from the lawnmower. Then the dog gripped his leg.
“I grabbed the dog by the nose, and an officer said, ‘Good dog, good dog,’ while I’m just bleeding,” Waters, now 58, recalls to WW.
It was the worst pain he’d ever felt.
“I’ve had a broken leg from falling, but nothing ever that traumatizing. It’s excruciating,” Waters says. “I can still feel it: [My leg] will cramp up, and it will feel like when he had me.”
In 2015, the bureau settled Waters’ lawsuit for $47,500. (He received less than half that figure after paying his attorneys and a mediator.) Shortly before the settlement, consultants had issued a list of recommendations to the Portland Police Bureau on use of force. One of their suggestions was to rely on K-9s less often.
That year, police dogs bit Black people, especially Black men, at a disproportionate rate. Four of the 16 people bitten by police dogs in 2015 were Black—1 in 4—which is a dramatic overrepresentation. (Black people make up only 5.8% of Portland’s population.)
Since then, the number of police dog bites has decreased. But in the midst of national upheaval over police practices, a strange thing happened: The racial disparity in suspects that Portland police dogs bite has actually widened.
From January to September 2020, Portland police dogs bit nine people: five Black men and four white men. For Black males, the bites represented 2.26% of all use-of-force cases, yet only 0.83% of all such cases for white males. That’s on pace to be the largest disparity since the bureau began compiling racial demographics on victims of police dog bites in 2015.
Even the year before, the number wasn’t nearly as disproportionate. In 2019, police dogs bit 15 white people and two Black people. In other words, Portland police dogs in 2020 were biting white people less—and biting Black people just as often.
The Portland Police Bureau did not respond to a request for comment on its figures.
WW obtained these numbers from the bureau as national scrutiny increases around the use of police dogs to achieve “pain compliance”—that is, getting a suspect to do what cops want with the agony of a dog bite.
Last year, the Marshall Project examined the use of such pain compliance nationwide. It found a similar pattern nationwide: Police dogs were unleashed on Black people more often than whites in several American cities that compiled data. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office and the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department used dogs on Black men almost exclusively.
Dan Handelman, a longtime observer of Portland police practices, says the data is troubling, especially because Portland overpolices Black people in several other ways, from traffic stops to jaywalking citations.
“I think it’s bad enough when we have humans using violence to enforce the state’s policies,” he says. “We shouldn’t recruit animals to do that too.”
David Hess, a paralegal with the law firm Kafoury & McDougal, helped represent Waters in his case. He isn’t surprised by the disparity in police dog bites—because he believes his client was racially targeted.
“I do not think a white guy who had done the same thing would’ve been treated in that way,” Hess says. “Not even trying to contact him, not trying to talk to him. It’s one of the craziest police incidents we’ve dealt with.”
The Portland Police Bureau’s K-9 Unit consists of 10 dogs. Among them are six German shepherds (Utzi, Siggi, Jasko, Maverick, Marko and Bravo) and two Belgian Malinoises (Billy and Jingo). Each has its own handler.
Sgt. Jason Preston, who handles Utzi, tells WW that the PPB canines are trained to guard and bark—which means once they find the subject, they bark for their handler and only bite on command.
But where on the body the dog will bite can be unpredictable. When WW asked whether dogs were trained where to bite, Preston responded: “Yes and no. We never target the face or neck. Normally, it is an arm or leg. Could they happen? Sure.”
In addition to inflicting excruciating pain, police dog bites can do serious harm.
Dr. Ashish A. Patel with Emanuel Hospital has performed head and neck reconstruction for about eight years. On average, his team treats at least a couple of dog-bite injuries per week.
“They can be quite destructive,” Patel says. He says a dog bite “almost looks like you put something through a rusty shredder. The cuts are not clean. It’s a tearing type of injury. If a dog is eating a big piece of meat, they tear. All dogs’ teeth are designed to tear. They’re carnivores and they have teeth designed to cut flesh.”
He says the most common dog bites come from pit bulls, Labradors and German shepherds.
“German shepherds are intelligent, trainable and loyal, and they do what they’re trained to do,” Patel says. “They have a natural killer instinct. They’re strong, aggressive animals. It doesn’t surprise that that’s what the [PPB] uses them for.”
Waters was bitten by one of the bureau’s German shepherds. When Waters was first able to walk without crutches after about two months into recovery, he felt panic every time he saw a German shepherd.
Waters says he still can’t wrap his mind around why it happened to him.
“How can you do a person like that? All that manpower,” he says, “and you could’ve just tapped me on the shoulder.”