“Shocking,” “misguided” and “highly suspicious” are ways law enforcement around the nation and in Wyoming are reacting to an effort by some California state lawmakers to outlaw police K-9s from being used in ways that could lead to someone being bitten.
Calling the use of dogs in police work racist and a throwback to America’s past of slavery and racial inequality, Assembly Bill 742 would ban the use of K-9 officers to apprehend and arrest suspects or for crowd control. It’s backed by ACLU California Action and the California/Hawaii chapter of the NAACP.
“This bill seeks to end a deeply racialized, traumatic and harmful practice by prohibiting the use of police K-9s for arrests, apprehension and crowd control,” said Assemblyman Corey Jackson, D-Riverside, the bill’s sponsor, during a Monday press conference.
He said the use of attack dogs to abuse people of color goes back to slavers using them to capture people in Africa to bring to America. Jackson said police dogs “are a violent remnant of America’s past that is often forgotten.”
He added that law enforcement’s use of K-9s is “a gross misuse of force victimizing black and brown people disproportionately.”
Law Enforcement Reacts
Career Wyoming law enforcement officer Byron Oedekoven said that police K-9s being used in racist ways to attack people of color is something he questions, and he’d “be highly suspicious of that happening, because that would be highly illegal and a crime. That’s illegal use of force.”
Now executive director for the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, Oedekoven spent his career as an officer in Campbell County and Gillette in northeast Wyoming. Part of that service was a stint as a K-9 handler.
The highly trained dogs “are incredibly valuable” in modern law enforcement, he said, adding that the instances of a dog actually biting or harming a suspect are rare.
“The dogs actually prevent resistance in most cases when a suspect weighs the option of being bitten versus complying,” he said.
Most times, a K-9’s bark is enough to subdue, stop or de-escalate a tense situation, he said.
Fresno, California, Police Chief Paco Balderrama agrees, issuing a statement in response to Jackson and AB 742.
While he usually doesn’t comment on legislation or state lawmakers, the K-9 ban “is misguided and goes too far,” he says.
“What some legislators fail to consider is the fact that strong accountability already exists in most law enforcement agencies that do not allow for the use of K-9s in low-level arrests, non-violent arrests or for crowd control.”
Like Oedekoven, Balderrama said K-9s “actually help de-escalate most use-of-force incidents.”
A Safety Issue
Jackson said that authority figures using K-9s to keep people under control is a form of emotional abuse for people of color.
“One of those issues that continues to be passed on from one generation to the next is a vicious and unforgiving part of our history that has institutionalized and created generational trauma in the Black community for centuries,” Jackson said.
While there may have been people who misused police dogs in the past, those are individual bad actors, Oedekoven said. Today, K-9s are an integral tool for law enforcement that also contribute to keeping human officers safer.
“If someone is out of control so much, the use of a K-9 is appropriate,” he said, adding that in those cases, the dog acts as a barrier that can keep human officers from harm. “It’s entirely an officer safety issue.”
Although Fresno is a much larger community than any in Wyoming, the numbers show K-9s aren’t causing disproportionate injuries, Balderrama said.
A suspect was actually bitten in 0.38% of K-9 responses in 2022, he said. Dogs were used peacefully in nearly 500 arrests where either the threat of using a K-9 or its bark resulted in the peaceful surrender of suspects.
As a K-9 handler himself, Oedekoven said one of his usual patrols was walking the downtown bar district with his dog, named Jug.
“With the mere presence of a dog, we prevent a lot of bar fights and assaults,” he said. “It was a very effective prevention tool.”
And to call K-9 officers vicious isn’t accurate, he said. While they can be aggressive on command when trained properly, the nature of the animals isn’t vicious, Oedekoven said.
“Mine was incredibly friendly and liked people – until they present otherwise,” he said.
Not in Wyoming
While the California State Assembly prepares to debate AB 742 and the use of K-9s in law enforcement, Oedekoven is confident it’s not an issue that will be brought up anytime soon in Wyoming.
“Well, first I would say that I believe folks in Wyoming would realize dogs are only used in those situations where a perpetrator is resisting, fighting with officers or posing a danger,” he said, and not as a tool to perpetuate racial abuses.
With the Wyoming Legislature in session, the Capitol building in Cheyenne is swept daily by Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers with K-9s.
Eliminating K-9s from virtually all aspects of police work except sniffing out drugs isn’t a way to improve the safety of a community, Oedekoven said.
“It’s an interesting supposition that somehow that would reduce crime and reduce violence,” he said.
And he doesn’t envy his law enforcement colleagues like Balderrama in California who now have to devote resources to lobbying against AB 742.
“In visiting with my counterparts (there), they have a tough job,” Oedekoven said. “Thank goodness we’re in Wyoming, where it’s apparent we enjoy community support.”