Columbia County inmate dog attack prompts lawsuit warning
A tort claim notice has been filed with Columbia County alleging civil rights violations at the county jail following the use of a sheriff's canine to attack a non-cooperative inmate.
St. Helens law firm Johnstun Injury Law notified the county on Jan. 9 that a claim is being asserted against the county for "assault and battery, excessive force, and civil rights violations, among others." Jacob Johnstun is representing Christopher Bartlett, who was attacked by a Columbia County Sheriff's Office canine during a stint in jail last August.
Bartlett was instructed to place his hands through an opening in his jail cell door so he could be handcuffed and then transferred to a different cell. Bartlett didn't comply with orders, so jail staff returned with a canine deputy, giving him an additional warning. Deputies say Bartlett responded by chucking a large plastic tub at the door. Seconds later, jail staff sicced Lars, a trained Belgian malinois, on the inmate.
The dog pulled the inmate to the ground, latching on to one of his arms for nearly 20 seconds before the man was immediately released to medical staff. Johnstun says Bartlett sustained lacerations on his arm and inner thigh, leaving visible scars.
Video footage of the attack was released and subsequently went viral.
The sheriff's office maintains the incident went according to protocol and was a justifiable use of force. "Our view is that the use of that force was justified and that the combatant inmate was not seriously injured during a proper use of force designed to stop the inmate's aggressions with the least likelihood of seriously hurting the inmate or others," Sheriff Jeff Dickerson wrote in an email.
Johnstun and many in the public disagree. "Mr. Bartlett was locked in his 6-by-8-foot cell," Johnstun says. "He wasn't going anywhere. He was alone. He was not armed, and this is important. I know a lot of people have seen that footage, but there's a lot going on there."
Since the attack and subsequent public backlash, the sheriff's office asked for the Columbia County district attorney's office to review the incident.
The sheriff's office has since placed a moratorium on the use of canines within the jail, pending further independent review. District Attorney Jeff Auxier declined to comment on the ongoing investigation, but confirmed Wednesday, Jan. 31, that his office was "moving forward."
"I expect to conclude the investigation in mid-February," Auxier says.
In the midst of the DA's review on the use of force, Johnstun has already notified county officials on behalf of Bartlett's family that legal action might be taken in the form of a civil lawsuit. Johnstun reiterated that no formal complaint has been filed, but he sees the dog attack as an unprecedented constitutional violation in Oregon.
Using police dogs to attack people already in custody is a rare practice in the U.S., Johnstun says. "From the video and the available facts, we're just not seeing any emergency that would justify this level of force."
Johnstun says the county is defending the attack. "We're not arguing against the use of canine units when they're used as they're supposed to be," he says. "There's a big difference when a canine is unleashed on a fleeing suspect when there's a potential threat to the public ... but [here's] a man who's where he's supposed to be and he's locked in a cell."