In-depth report from regional newspaper finds systemic abuses, excessive force, and striking evidence that a horrific attack on an unarmed teenage boy by a police canine was premeditated
In The Brothers Karazamov, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky includes a brutal anecdote of a wealthy military officer who orders his highly-trained dogs to kill and devour an 8 year old boy. Dostoevsky was seeking to make a point about theodicy, or the philosophical conflicts that result from a belief in an all-knowing, all-loving god on the one hand and the clear presence of evil in the world on the other. For Dostoevsky, the problem was irreconcilable; the "problem of evil", as theodicy is alternately referred to, was too damning an indictment against God. The famous Russian writer (and atheist) expanded upon the anecdote by having his character of Ivan angrily reject explanations for the 8 year old boy's death as part of a larger plan for human happiness:
"Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature…and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?"
For Fyodor Dostoevsky, the senseless act of ordering dogs to attack a child was so profoundly obscene that he believed it would convince others to change their entire view of the world after considering it. Although, obviously, Puppycide Database Project has no opinion on religious matters, we do agree that the image of a young person being torn apart by wild animals is utterly horrifying and made almost unimaginably grotesque by the addition of another human being using those animals as a weapon. It is quite literally true, and not overly melodramatic to say, that such an act of violence is one of the worst things in existence.
Just such an event happened. Recently. In Florida.
There were a few differences between what happened in Florida and what happened in The Brothers Karazamov. The 8 year old boy was still a child, but a teenager. There was no wealthy land-owner, but there was a group of officers from the North Port Police Department. In the story, the boy was targeted for accidentally hitting one of the land-owner's beloved dogs with a rock. In Florida, a teenager was targeted because he attempted to commit suicide by hanging himself, and his family called the police for help.
The boy's name is Jared Lemay. This is what the North Port Police did to him for trying to kill himself:
Jared was unarmed when North Port K-9 Officer Keith Bush and K-9 Officer Michael Dietz ordered a dog to attack him. Jared ultimately survived the attack, but is now permanently disfigured. His mother had called 911 for help after Jared's family had found that he had attempted to hang himself with a home-made noose.
Jared never had a gun.
The attack went largely un-noticed by the press and research groups - including the Puppycide Database Project - until the recent release of a damning report by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune focused on the excesses of the North Port Police Department's K9 unit. Reporters with the Herald-Tribune discovered damning evidence that the attack on Lemay was premeditated: messages were found in which K9 officers urged one another to reach Lemay's house quickly in order to "COME GET UR BITE".
After Lemay was attacked, resulting in injuries to his face so severe he was unable to eat solid food for over a week, he was taken to the hospital. The police officers involved congratulated one another. Lemay had been attacked while he was hiding from officers, completely unarmed, inside of a trash can.
Lemay's story is now gaining national attention. Photography is Not a Crime today published a story on Lemay's brutal injuries and North Port Police Department's history of extensive force (Puppycide Database Project was interviewed for that report), along with several other media outlets across the country.
The use of dogs by law enforcement in the United States is problematic for a variety of reasons. Let's leave behind the very long and very ugly history of the use of dogs to catch runaway slaves and then, more recently, to terrify civil rights protesters.
Based largely on arguments that dogs are required to wage the War on Drugs, police canines have been embraced by a string of recent court decisions as walking and barking probable cause machines. The use of canines to sniff out drugs and other contraband comes despite the whole-sale refusal by police departments across the country to release records that could be used to determine the efficacy of these animals. What little evidence has been obtained regarding the efficacy of police canines, as part of the discovery & subpoena process by defense lawyers, has shown the few dogs reviewed to be worse than chance at alerting to the presence of controlled substances.
But let's set that aside as well, and for a moment pretend that police canines live up to the claims made of them by police and prosecutors. Puppycide Database Project has come across reports of police K9s being mistreated and even killed by their handlers in departments across the country. When police dogs are not being used to sniff out drugs, they are typically being used to find and attack fleeing suspects. This practice is incredibly prone to error and excessive force. Many of the "puppycides" that we have recorded in our database involve police tracking a fleeing suspect through homes and backyards owned by innocent bystanders. When police canines confront a dog owned by one of those bystanders and a confrontation ensues, police often open fire.
That brings us to situations in which a police K9 is ordered to attack an individual. Those on either side of the current national debate on police use of force maintain that the issue is complex: the decision as to which circumstances justify police force, and how much, is not an easy one for human beings. Why do we think that animals would be capable of making such determinations? The decision by North Port Police to use a police K9 to respond to a call related to a young person in the midst of a mental health crisis defies any rational explanation. The attack on Jared Lemay should lead the public to seriously question whether it is time for law enforcement to be forced to cease using canines. The risks involved are significant, and the advantages are unclear and unproven.
We've largely addressed the issue of the use of dogs by law enforcement, but the truth is that the horrific attack on this young man brings up a number of important issues of which dogs are only a part. What happened to Mr Lemay will lead the family members of those suffering from mental health issues across the country to doubt whether they can depend on the police for help. Jared Lemay is an adult under in only the most legal sense. How can an institution expect the trust and support of the public when it lashes out in the most extreme and violent way against a sick child? At a time when thousands are marching in protest of law enforcement in cities across the country, more and more of us will be confronted with that question.