Gainesville’s Public Safety Committee received an update on Monday about city staff’s progress on a November motion by the city commission about the police department’s K-9 unit.
City Manager Cynthia Curry walked through the three parts of the motion that directed staff to report what the police department would look like with a modified or no K-9 unit, to research how other cities use citizens oversight board with law enforcement and to conduct an audit on the K-9 unit.
Curry said eliminating the K-9 unit could lead to an increase in crime rates in the city. She said that could come as more subjects evade capture because the Gainesville Police Department (GPD) lacks a K-9 unit, those subjects could then commit more crimes, forcing GPD officers to use more force.
Curry said Gainesville could see a possible increase in deadly force situations and officers injured without the K-9 unit.
Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut asked what other dog breeds could work for GPD. Gainesville Police Chief Lonnie Scott said the department was looked at peer cities and found that almost all use German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois.
He noted that bloodhounds were more prevalent with the Department of Corrections because those dogs, with a contingent of armed guards, search for unarmed escapees. However, on the streets, Scott said guns are available and a threat to officers and the public.
Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker, who heads the committee, asked if GPD used the find and bark method with its dogs or the find and bite method.
Scott replied that the department used the bite method and said it better protects the officer and the dog. An armed suspect can attack a dog that just stands nearby and barks, and the barking alerts the suspect to prepare for an officer approaching.
Scott said the department has adjusted its criteria for when to deploy the K-9 unit, saving it for violent, forcible felonies. He added that the majority of other departments, including the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, used the bite method.
GPD also announces the arrival of a dog onto the scene to search for the suspect. Around 90% of the time, Scott said the suspects surrender themselves because of that warning. Scott said GPD is looking to make the announcement as loud as possible, like from megaphones, in order to increase its effectiveness.
In certain situations, GPD doesn’t make the announcement because it could constitute a danger to the officers—like large, wooded areas where continual announcements reveal positions.
On the second element, Curry said different cities utilize a variety of citizen oversight boards. She said Miami has a board with more power than most, able to subpoena and investigate issues. Other cities use boards only in advisory roles, similar to Gainesville’s Police Advisory Council (PAC).
Duncan-Walker said both the community and the PAC want more responsibility given to the council for oversight of GPD policy and incidents. Changes could move the board closer to the Miami model. She said that issue could be taken up before the full city commission that controls the PAC.
However, Curry cautioned that the city commission has no direct say over GPD policy. She said stepping in to tweak one or two policies opens the door for dais control of GPD and oversteps the current structure. The question for the commission is whether to have one, and then GPD and the city manager would work through policy.
And new policy works into the third part of November’s motion—an audit of the K-9 unit. Last year, GPD hired a third party to investigate the K-9 unit following the Terrell Bradley apprehension that first sparked community conversation around the unit.
The report said GPD followed industry standards. Even so, GPD has modified some policies like when to deploy the unit and alerting command staff immediately of any injuries coming from an apprehension.
Curry said GPD and city staff continue workshopping those policies and a final set has yet to be given to the unit. The unit has been pulled from active duty for the moment, with the city relying on the sheriff’s office to assist.
Curry said the policies should finish in April but noted that they wouldn’t come before the city commission just like normal policy changes at Gainesville Fire Rescue. She said the city’s Office of Equity and Inclusion has been included in the policy discussions.
The K-9 unit received a new commander since the Bradley incident, and staff turnover has left the unit with only two officers. The unit's new leader, Lt. Mike West, said he’d like to have six officers on the unit, and he added that two new officers had passed initial tests to join the unit.
Community members expressed mixed positions on the K-9 unit.
PAC member Kali Blount said he thought the unit should be started from scratch with no members from the old unit. He also said GPD should investigate using different dog breeds.
Carrie Parker Warren said the K-9 unit should be reinstated with better training. She said if GPD responded to her house because of an incident, she wants them to bring the dogs in the K-9 unit to help.
In the past two weeks, the city has held two community meetings about the K-9 unit. A third is scheduled for April with a location yet to be determined.