The Gainesville City Commission wants to hear from staff about how removing or altering the city’s K-9 unit could affect its police force but is saving any potential policy changes for the new commission that will be sworn in January.
Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker requested Wednesday’s special meeting to discuss the use of police dogs within the Gainesville Police Department (GPD), following the July 10 apprehension of Terrell Bradley. Bradley lost an eye and suffered bites on his hand from a GPD K-9 named Ranger.
The commission voted 5-0 at the end of the almost 5-hour meeting Wednesday to request more information about options for the K-9 unit, a citizens’ oversight committee, and a “cultural audit” of the K-9 unit to identify potential problems. Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos was absent due to a family emergency, and Commissioner Reina Saco had left the meeting by the time the commission voted.
In July, Bradley elbowed an officer and fled the scene of a traffic stop on foot, and officers found cannabis, a stolen handgun and ammunition during a search of his car, according to GPD reports. Officers called in the dog unit when they were unable to locate him and discovered he was a convicted felon.
Ranger found Bradley in bushes near the Eden Park Apartment complex and bit him on the hand and face, according to incident reports released by GPD. Cpl. Joseph Meurer, Ranger’s handler, used a breaker bar to get the dog to release Bradley.
An internal investigation as well as a review of the incident by outside firm V2 Global found that Meurer and other officers had followed department policies and procedures. However, Ranger was temporarily taken out of duty rotation and given additional training.
Duncan-Walker played the police body cam video of Bradley’s apprehension by the dog, along with the video from two other police dog incidents from other cities, during her opening comments at the meeting.
“This is an urgent matter,” Duncan-Walker said. “I also feel the need to say that the Terrell Bradley case shed light on an issue that is not new… But what happened to him gives us the opportunity to open a dialogue that we simply must have about how we police this community; how we consider alternatives; how we ensure accountability, transparency, equity and fairness; and how we move, not just the canine unit forward, but how we move the Gainesville Police Department forward.”
The Gainesville City Commission heard more than 3 hours of comments from residents and current and former police officers about the future of its K-9 unit. Mayor Lauren Poe frequently had to call the chamber to order and remind participants “not to cheer or jeer” the speakers or engage in side debates in the meeting room.
When Poe initially was trying to call the 5:30 p.m. meeting to order while residents and police officers jockeyed for positions in the meeting room, and the mayor tried to ensure the room wasn’t over fire code capacity, Saco got up from her seat. Poe’s active microphone caught her saying, “I am done with the circus. I am going out.” Saco returned to the chamber later, but left again before the end of the meeting, without additional public comment.
Police Chief Inspector Capt. Jamie Kurnick, who heads the GPD’s professional standards branch, told the commission that GPD’s K-9 unit has had 12 bites in 2022 out of 122 suspect apprehensions, a bite ratio of 9.8%. The five-dog unit also had a similar bite ratio in 2020 and 2021.
Kurnick said a bite ratio of 30% was considered acceptable standard for K-9 units so that the GPD’s bite ratio was 20% lower than the acceptable practice standard.
“Any time we use a canine for apprehension, it is in response to resistance,” Police Chief Lonnie Scott said. “We are responding to the behavior of the person that we’re trying to gain control of.”
Of the 12 people bitten in 2022, 10 of them have been Black males while two of them were white males, according to GPD statistics. The 2021 numbers are exactly the same.
Kali Blount, a member of the GPD’s Police Advisory Council, said during the public comment period that the committee reviewed material on the Bradley incident, and he is concerned about whether the officers can control the dogs and about whether K-9 officers are targeting residents of East Gainesville.
“This is a cancer,” Blount said. “You got to get this malignancy out.”
Melissa Hawthorne was one of several members of the Alachua County Labor Coalition who spoke in opposition to the K-9 unit during the meeting.
“Do we really need canine units?” Hawthorne, a schoolteacher, said. “Do we not have any other technology that can help apprehend fleeing suspects who need to be apprehended? … I can’t accept that there aren’t in 2022.”
Current and former police officers who spoke during the meeting talked about how important police dogs were to search and rescue operations, and former K-9 officers described how their dogs had saved their lives and apprehended violent criminals.
Tristan Grunder, the president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, praised the department’s openness about the Bradley investigation and its willingness to bring in outside consultants to look at the policies.
“Our police department has and will continue to be forward thinking and honest with the public,” Grunder said. “We have more of an open-door policy than any other department in Alachua County.
Sgt. Joseph Castor, a GPD officer, described the police dogs as a resource to his work on the city’s SWAT team.
“Please don’t take away our resources,” Castor said. “Let’s change policies if that’s what you guys want. Let’s work together.”
The commission did not seem to be set on a particular policy changes or on the elimination of the K-9 unit altogether but wanted to look at ways to change how the unit operates.
Commissioner David Arreola, who is term-limited and leaves the commission in January, said, “I have hope that discussions of reform can be genuine. The lives of victims matter. Even if you are committing a crime, you have a right not to be permanently maimed.”
He said moving forward he would support reforms that help reduce the number of violent dog-human encounters, especially those involving non-violent apprehensions.
“In our city, we have these discussions out in the open because they’re difficult, because it’s necessary and because it leads to a better system,” Arreola said.
Duncan-Walker said she was focused on putting policies in place that guarantee “real accountability.”
“I didn’t hold this meeting tonight to vilify you,” Duncan-Walker said to Scott. “I held this meeting because I don’t care who you are, we have to be accountable. Yes, there are some people who are doing the right thing. Well, we also need to know when it doesn’t go right.”
Duncan-Walker said that although the police department followed its policies and procedures, “just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right.”
“Police dog bites inflict debilitating, disabling destructive injuries causing physical, mental and emotional scars of victims, sometimes death and trauma on entire communities,” Duncan-Walker said. “I want the officers in the Gainesville Police Department to be able to safely do your jobs. But … I believe it is important for us to consider the alternatives. The stakes are high.”