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As law enforcement agencies add K9 deputies, more dogs deployed for use of force

"It starts with a bark," Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson says. "It's similar to everything we do. There's a whole range of force options out there that a deputy can use."

Dickerson is referring to the Columbia County Sheriff's Office K9 deputy, Lars. Lars, who was brought on to the force and paired with a handler in 2015, is trained in tracking suspects. Soon, he'll likely be trained in narcotics detection.

The Belgian malinois is one of two canines employed by the Sheriff's Office. Another dog, a shepherd named Odin trained in narcotics, is expected to join the Sheriff's Office early next year.

Since bringing on the help of canines, law enforcement agencies across the county have reported success in tracking down and detaining fleeing suspects, and finding suspects hiding in dark or remote areas.

But the dogs can also be used in lieu of weapons to apprehend non-compliant suspects, whether they're armed or not.

In August, Lars was brought in to the Columbia County Jail by his handler, Deputy Ryan Dews, to deal with a non-cooperative inmate.

VIDEO STILL COURTESY OF COLUMBIA COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE - Body cam footage from a Columbia County Sheriff's Office deputy provided to the Spotlight upon request shows Lars, a K9 deputy employed by the agency, subduing an inmate for being combative and refusing to following orders. A rising volume of body cam and citizen-filmed footage of K9 attacks is raising questions about how law enforcement agencies use such units, especially on unarmed offenders. 
Incident reports indicate Christopher Bartlett, an inmate who had been combative with deputies and may have a history of mental illness, needed to be moved to a different pod in the jail. Bartlett was instructed to place his hands through a small port in his cell door — the same port used to deliver meals to inmates — so he could be handcuffed and moved.

He didn't comply.

Deputies showed up with Lars, barking anxiously outside the man's jail cell.

"You're gonna get bit!" a deputy warns Bartlett.

After a few seconds, the jail cell door swings open. A hard plastic tub, called a "tote" by jail staff, is hurled at deputies by Bartlett.

Warning: graphic footage included below.

Lars immediately descends on the inmate, taking him to the ground and clenching his right arm, tearing the man's skin.

A deputy yells at Bartlett, "Stop resisting!" as he is on the ground with Lars still attached to his arm.

After 20 seconds, the dog releases his jaw and Bartlett is carried to an area outside his cell to be seen by medical staff.

"We bring the dog in and we give him a command to bark," Dickerson explains. "We need people to realize there is a dog and the dog is ready to go at it if you continue to push the issue. The dog is trained so that the officer doesn't have to get in there and get into a fist fight with somebody."

Dickerson estimates a canine deputy has been used on inmates in the jail "about half a dozen times" since Lars joined the office in November 2015.

Using police dogs on suspects has become controversial over the past decade. As more law enforcement agencies bring on canines in an era of emerging citizen-captured cell phone video, along with body cameras worn by police, the public now has more access to raw, graphic accounts of many grisly dog attacks.

NPR aired a story earlier this month on the use of canines on unarmed suspects. Many cases result in severe injury, and some also result in lawsuits.

The sheriff says that's not the intent in his office. CCSO relies on a policy for use of force and a separate policy for the use of canines in enforcement duties. The canine policy stipulates deputies may rely on a dog when a suspect poses "an imminent threat of violence or serious harm" or when a suspect is "physically resisting or threatening to resist arrest."

Dickerson says the August incident with Bartlett, who resisted and was documented to be combative, was reviewed and deemed a justifiable use of force. In fact, Dickerson says, it went exactly as it should have, with Lars seizing the inmate, and the inmate being removed "without serious injury."

"We do not relish having to resort to force," Dickerson stated via email. "We do what we can to minimize the length and intensity of these confrontations to protect the staff AND the inmates from severe injury."

Bartlett did not file a complaint following the incident and has since been released from jail. 

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