Police dog's wounding by officer would have been hard to prevent, experts say

CRIME SCENES

'In the same spot at the same time'

November 11, 2009|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

To understand the sometimes perilous work of being a police dog, it's helpful to remember that the animals react to danger far differently than humans do.

"We see somebody with a gun or a weapon ... we will get out of the way," said Officer Steven W. Sturm, a dog trainer with the Baltimore Police Department. "Dogs react totally the opposite. They go. No matter what they see, they're going to be going unless we call them off."

That partly explains how a city police officer armed with a .40-caliber Glock handgun shot Blade, a German shepherd, during a pursuit Sunday evening in South Baltimore. Police said the dog mistakenly attacked the officer, who shot the dog in self-defense, putting a bullet in Blade's left shoulder.

Blade survived and appears to be making a speedy recovery. He turned around in his cage when reporters visited him at the Falls Road Animal Hospital on Tuesday and accepted soft pats from his handler, a female city police officer who repeated, "I know, I know," as she stroked the top of his head. Just out of surgery, Blade went for a walk on Monday and put pressure on his injured shoulder.

Other dogs aren't so lucky. Since 1965, according to statistics compiled by the Connecticut Police Work Dog Association, 29 police dogs across the country have been killed by friendly fire, the latest this year during a raid in California. Another 110 have been killed by suspects with guns, including five this year, and 25 have been fatally stabbed.

In Sunday's shooting in Baltimore, police and experts on police dogs said there appears to be little anyone could have done to avoid the attack or the gunfire that followed. "They were just both in the same spot at the same time," Sturm said, "and Blade was doing what he was taught to do."

Still, chief police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said "the officer was doing everything he was supposed to do" as well, but that commanders will "look at this to make sure it doesn't happen again." The department's canine unit has 16 dogs, and other units, such as narcotics, have their own dogs. Each costs between $10,000 and $40,000, depending on the level of training, which can take up to 18 weeks.

Blade had been with a group of officers assigned to a traffic checkpoint on Wegworth Lane near Hollins Ferry Road. Police said the driver of a car evaded the checkpoint, stopped and, along with at least two passengers, ran through an alley. Blade's handler, seeing one of those fleeing, released Blade from his leash and commanded the dog to pursue and capture.

Police said that as the dog closed in on the suspect, a uniformed police officer appeared, and the dog attacked the officer. Police said the officer was saved from injury by his protective vest and that he fired one shot. Sturm said the bullet entered Blade's left shoulder and broke into two.

Sturm said it could be weeks before it's determined whether Blade can return to work.

Jim Cortina, director of the police dog association in Connecticut, and Russ Hess, director of the U.S. Police Canine Association, said some agencies mark their dogs while others do not, but there is no standard. They agreed with city police that vests sometimes hamper or even cause injuries to dogs working urban streets and running through tight alleys because the material can become caught on debris.

Guglielmi said city police are looking at reflective collars for dogs, but even that might not have prevented this shooting. Even had the officer recognized the dog as a police dog, Blade would have attacked. "When things happen, they happen fast," said Russ Hess, the executive director of the canine association. "I'm sure it was an accident, and I'm sure both officers regret it. It appears that everybody was trying to do their job."

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