DRO calls for statewide ban on use of canines against jail inmates
Disability Rights Oregon is calling for a statewide ban on using canines against inmates in jails in the wake of an incident in Columbia County.
DRO issued a report last week, titled, "You're gonna get bitten," which examines Columbia County Jail's use of canines to intimidate and control inmates. The report compares the use of canines in jails across the United States, and in Oregon, following the release of body camera footage from Columbia County Jail showing deputies ordering a trained police dog to sic an inmate who was reportedly being disruptive and non-cooperative, in an attempt to remove him from his jail cell.
Reports indicate the man who was attacked by the dog, Christopher Bartlett, was experiencing mental and behavioral health issues at the time.
The body camera footage showing the dog attack was obtained by the Columbia County Spotlight via a public records request and subsequently released for the first time publicly in December 2017.
Bartlett later filed a federal lawsuit against Columbia County for its jail tactics and received a $251,000 settlement in late October.
In its report, authored by Emily Cooper, DRO's legal director, DRO notes that Oregon is one of only six states in the U.S. that allows the use of police dogs to forcibly remove inmates from jail cells and Columbia County is the only county in Oregon that uses the practice. More importantly, the report notes many jail inmates live with some form of mental illness, yet Oregon lacks the tools and resources to adequately address those inmates.
"While people with mental illness disproportionally represent jail inmates (raising questions of criminalization of mental illness), jails themselves are often ill equipped to respond to inmates whose behaviors relate to their disability requiring treatment rather than punishment," Cooper states in the report. "Officers who are not specifically trained in de-escalation techniques, crisis intervention, and other trauma informed interventions may wrongly believe inmates' lack of compliance is willful rather than connected to their disability."
While using dogs to apprehend inmates isn't common in the state, DRO says it plans to pursue legislation preventing the practice in Oregon altogether.
"During the 2019 legislative session, Disability Rights Oregon (DRO) will advocate for changes in the law to ban the use of canines for intimidation, control, or punishment of inmates," the report notes.
DRO, attorney note missteps, lack of review of dog attack
After the August 2017 incident in Columbia County, the sheriff at the time, Jeff Dickerson, deemed the jail's use of force "justifiable." Still, the sheriff commissioned a district attorney review of the matter, and a grand jury review of general jail policies was also conducted. No criminal charges were filed against jail personnel, but Jacob Johnstun, Bartlett's attorney, says jail staff made several missteps in using a dog on a disabled man already in custody.
Both Johnstun and Cooper noted that incident reports, which weren't submitted by deputies until after the Spotlight's records request was made, conflicted with the sequence of events shown in video footage of the attack. Johnstun says that was a key factor in his legal case.
"The reports the officers are writing … all seem to have inaccuracies that just don't line up with an honest view of that footage," Johnstun says. "If this was such an acceptable use of force, why are you guys being less than candid about it? Not only did they open up the door to sic a dog on a mentally ill inmate, but they lied about it."
Additionally, Johnstun says the grand jury was not tasked with reviewing the specific facts of the Bartlett incident.
"I saw the county and the insurance company's press releases after the settlement went through," Johnstun says. "They seemed to place a lot of emphasis on 'Well look, the grand jury decided we didn't do anything wrong,' but in the grand jury's review, there were no specifics about this case given to the jury at all."
The St. Helens attorney says the county's messaging was "trying to take advantage of an ill-informed public."
In its report, DRO noted the grand jury review was absent any expert testimony from those "familiar with the health, safety, and civil rights of inmates."
The advocacy organization also claims there is a "clear legal standard" that suggests the use of force wasn't justified.
Future canine attacks on inmates likely to be limited
Regardless of whether DRO is successful with legislation, jails and law enforcement agencies in Oregon aren't likely to repeat the same behavior used in Columbia County.
"This case sets precedent," Johnstun says of his client's civil rights complaint. Johnstun noted that a judgment was created against the county.
"Anybody in the future can go and see what we were alleging in this case and what the result was," Johnstun says. "I think it's telling the county and their insurance company were apparently so nervous of this going to trial, they just weren't willing to risk it."
The Columbia County Sheriff's Office was unavailable for immediate comment.
"Canines should never be used to intimidate or control inmates," Cooper states in the published report. "This practice poses an unnecessary risk of harm to both deputies and inmates when safer de-escalation strategies are available."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of states that allow the practice of canine cell extractions. Per the DRO report, only Oregon and five other states allow this practice. We regret the error.