The Miami Police Department declined to comment for this story. But several police dog experts defend the city's rules. Pat Beltz, a California handler, says most cops still teach their canines to bite first. "Training your dogs to bark first looks and sounds pretty good, but it's just not realistic," he says. "Criminals don't just lie down and surrender to a barking dog."
Yet two pending cases against canine officers cast doubt on their judgment. A 20-year veteran of Miami's canine unit, Officer Rondal Brown, was charged last spring with two felonies after his police dog died in his back yard. Brown, age 48, claimed the animal died after eating rat poison at a nearby construction site. But police found the dog, a four-year-old bloodhound, emaciated, only 33 pounds — half of what it weighed when Brown took the dog into his home.
Cotekia Stringer after her encounter with a police dog.
Brown's case is set for trial in August, just a few days after another dog handler's date in court. Sgt. Allen Cockfield, a 27-year veteran of the Miami-Dade Police force, is accused of kicking his four-year-old dog, Duke, to death during training.
Handlers' mistakes can cost taxpayers big-time. Sacramento paid a police dog bite victim more than $80,000 last year. A few weeks later, a town in Oregon footed an $82,500 judgment in another canine case. And, more troubling for Miami taxpayers, the 11th U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled in a Jacksonville case a few weeks ago that Florida dog handlers can be held financially liable when their canines injure people.
Altogether, it could spell trouble for Chief John Timoney's force. The CIP recently interviewed a police lawyer about the city's canine units — and the group's chairman says he's not satisfied yet.
"We really need to review this issue more," CIP Chairman Thomas Rebull says. "There are enough concerns out there to warrant more discussion."