On December 14, a five-year-old elementary student at Samuel Burland School was bitten in the face by a Winnipeg Police Service dog while the K-9 unit was visiting the school. The injury sustained by the child required stitching by a plastic surgeon and resulted in a knocked-out tooth.
The incident, like any serious one involving police, was referred to the Independent Investigation Unit (IIU), Manitoba’s police oversight group. However, it reportedly did not meet the IIU unit’s standard of “serious injury classification,” and will therefore not be investigated.
However, an investigator from the IIU indicated that an investigation is still possible should “enough public interest” warrant it.
Police dogs are not pets or lovable companions for schoolchildren. The Winnipeg Police Service’s use of their K-9s for this seemingly innocuous purpose alone warrants enough of a public interest for a proper investigation into the incident in question.
Evidence suggests that trained police K-9s pose a serious risk to public safety as they are “prone to committing behavioural mistakes” which have resulted in severe injuries to innocent bystanders. Numerous people have been mauled in situations where police dogs are deployed in response to minor crimes. K-9s have even killed people.
K-9s lack the ability to make judgement calls and cannot always be controlled by their police handlers, according to leading animal behaviouralist Dr. Richard Polksy. Police K-9s have even turned on their own handlers while attempting to apprehend suspects.
Between 2005-2013 in the US there were nearly 33,000 dog bites due to police K-9 intervention resulting in trips to the emergency room. Police dog bites and associated injuries have also been increasing in Canada.
The RCMP logged 291 police K-9 bites in 2010. However, beginning in 2015, this number would increase to over 400 each subsequent year, totalling 2,152 dog bites through 2019.
In 2016, dog bites were reported by the Saskatoon Police Service as the “leading cause of injury to suspects.” In 2021, BC’s independent police oversight agency investigated “seven serious injuries” associated with police dog bites, up from zero reported bites in 2018-19.
Since 2020, the use of police dogs during legal intervention has been curtailed in parts of the US, and police K-9 programs in places like Saskatoon are under scrutiny following incidents involving dog bites.
It should come as no surprise that police dogs biting students during school visits are not unheard of. Consider a few examples.
In 2004, Angelina England, a seven-year-old Vancouver Island girl was bitten by an RCMP police dog brought to her school for a presentation to students. The bite broke Angelina’s skin and required treatment. In response to the incident, a spokesperson for the Port Alberni RCMP noted that dog and its handler Constable Bruce McLellan regularly visit classrooms.
In 2011, a 15-year-old southern Arizona student was bitten at Nogales High School while police officers were at the school giving a classroom presentation. The teenager was treated for bites on her arm.
All of this begs the question: why exactly are police dogs visiting school classrooms?
Police deploy K-9 units to school classrooms for one reason only: to manage the police brand to influence an otherwise uniquely and highly susceptible audience. Police school visits are a practice consistent with “layered policing,” an organizational police strategy intended to extend the reach of police into the community. Children are one of the most significant and impressionable audiences in terms of establishing and reinforcing police legitimacy.
The police use their dogs to encourage and condition children to view them as relatable and trustworthy. Establishing trust in police is thought to increase cooperation with police. The use of the K-9s in this manner is unsurprising in a city like Winnipeg, where public trust in police has worsened in recent years.
Trust in police, or lack thereof, can result from different factors such as experiences with the criminal justice system or interactions with police officers leveraging their trained service K-9s as exhibits, a practice that poses a danger to children both inside and outside of schools.
The mandate of the IIU is to ensure accountability. The IIU must exercise its mandate to obligate the Winnipeg Police Service to answer for their actions at Samuel Burland School by launching an investigation.
Given the evidence of the volatility of K-9s during both legal police intervention and in social situations involving children, the Winnipeg Police Service should have, at the very least, been tangentially aware of the possible dangers associated with exposing schoolchildren to their dogs in non-criminal situations.
The public entrusts school administrators to safeguard their children. Ideally, the practice of allowing anyone—let alone susceptible children—to socialize with police K-9s in classrooms should end. Nevertheless, an IIU investigation could lead to the development of necessary policies and additionally mandated safety precautions to ensure that no child in a classroom is ever bitten again by a police dog.
Christopher J. Schneider is Professor of Sociology at Brandon University and author of Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media (Lexington Books, 2016).