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Just after 9:30 p.m., an 80-pound Belgian Malinois snarls as it traverses the bushes outside a one-story house on NW 51st Street in Liberty City. Its bared teeth glisten under the streetlights.
Cotekia Stringer hopes it misses her scent. A few minutes earlier, the heavyset 23-year-old with a bright panther tattoo on her leg had broken into a house down the block. She stole a few hundred bucks of jewelry and a checkbook.
But the cops — and the dog — show up before she can run very far.
Suddenly, a ball of muscle, brown fur, and razor-sharp incisors pounces on her. She grabs the collar and tries to roll away, but it's too late. The dog rips a quarter-size chunk of flesh from her hand. She screams and punches the animal. It slashes her arms and bites her face.
Finally, an officer arrives and calls off the beast.
The police take Stringer to the hospital and charge her with five felonies — including attempting to kill a police dog. She eventually gets four years in the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala for her crimes.
That was 2006. Today, Stringer's case — and the graphic photos of her torn flesh — have Miami's police review board asking whether cops need to rethink how they use their canines. Moreover, mutts have mangled suspects at a much faster rate than in recent years — nine in the first six months of 2009. And two handlers — one from the city police force and one from the county — will soon be tried for brutally mistreating and killing their canines.
"I'm really worried about how Miami Police are using their dogs," says Janet McAliley, a member of the Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP), which monitors complaints against cops. "There's no justification for those kinds of injuries on an unarmed woman like Cotekia Stringer."
Police first deputized dogs in Victorian England, when the Metropolitan London Police — the world's first metro force — used bloodhounds to track Jack the Ripper. Most American cops didn't have canine units until after World War II, when they took a page from the Nazis, who were well known for using intimidating military dogs.
During the 1960s, some departments reined in their dogs after snarling police German shepherds tore into civil rights marchers in Birmingham and Selma. Rules were passed that required training the animals to bark before biting. Still, cities across the nation — in California, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C. — have in recent years paid huge settlements for unjustified attacks. In D.C., a female officer was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2001 for allowing her dog to mangle two unarmed suspects.
In 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice was called in to review Miami's force, which had been accused of racism and brutality. Among the recommendations: The city should overhaul its canine units. The previous year, two sergeants and 19 canine officers had allowed their dogs to bite 68 suspects; this cost taxpayers thousands in settlements. In a letter to the city, the DOJ recommended retraining the animals to bark first.
Cops ignored the suggestion. The policy didn't change. In 2006, the DOJ wrote a follow-up missive stating "there is significant evidence that dogs can and do bite spontaneously" and noting "several incidents... in which the officer appeared to lack control over whether the dog would bite."
The city has made progress, though. In 2007, only 13 people were bitten. But numbers are on the rise again. This past January through June, nine people have been bitten. (Canines with the Miami-Dade County Police Department — which has a significantly larger force and covers a larger area — have injured only six suspects so far this year.) Among the city's cases:
• Darbin Diaz, age 21, was hiding behind a metal shed in Little Havana in January when a police dog bit his back and both thighs. He was suspected of burglary at a nearby house, but in the end was charged with only a misdemeanor for resisting arrest. The case is still open.
• Twenty-three-year-old Jose Morales was wanted for stealing a car and fleeing a cop when the same dog that bit Diaz tracked him down in February; it punctured both shoulders and the back of his head. He was never charged with a crime, according to county records.
• After a police canine bit him on the left leg, John Rosa, age 22, was arrested April 14 on suspicion of a robbery. He was never charged.
• A police dog tore into 20-year-old Sean Futch's arm March 26 as he cowered behind a back-yard barbecue on NW 115th Street. He had no prior criminal record. He was charged with burglary and fighting the dog, both felonies. A trial is set for September.
"You've got to protect yourself," says Futch's cousin, whose name is — interestingly — Michael Vick. "You even touch a dog, you get charged with assault on an officer. But that's one vicious officer, man."
Officially, Miami cops have leeway to decide when to let their dogs bite. Rules forbid officers from unleashing their canines on drunken suspects or those wanted for minor crimes. Confessions can't be coerced with the dogs' help.
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.
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."