Local News

Friday, Apr 13 2012 10:18 PM

Answers sought in mauling of woman asleep in her home

BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

Questions lingered Friday about how a woman sleeping in her own home could have been mauled by a Bakersfield Police Department dog in an incident that recalled several earlier attacks by BPD K-9s.The city identified the dog and its handler Friday and disclosed that neither has been relieved nor reassigned during the investigation of last Sunday's attack.

The city didn't have too much else to say. Specific details of the incident were withheld because of the likelihood of an expected lawsuit, officials said.

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Use of K-9s

BPD guidelines say K-9s can be used to locate and apprehend a suspect if the handler reasonably believes the suspect has committed or threatened to commit any criminal offense and if any of the following four conditions exist:

1) There's a reasonable belief the suspect poses an imminent threat of violence or serious harm to the public, officers, or the handler.

2) The suspect is physically resisting or threatening to resist arrest and the use of a canine reasonably appears to be necessary to overcome such resistance.

3) The suspect is believed to be concealed in an area where entry by anyone other than the canine would pose a threat to the safety of officers or the public.

4) It's recognized situations may arise that don't fall within the provisions set forth in BPD policy, and in any such case a standard of objective reasonableness shall be used to review the decision to use a canine in view of the totality of the circumstances.

The policy provides handlers with a lot of leeway in deciding when to use the dogs.

Before using a K-9, the policy says, the handler should consider pertinent information including the age of the suspect, the suspected offense and any potential danger to the public and officers if the animal is released. But in addition to the harm the dog may cause, a handler also must consider the danger the suspect could cause to the public or officers if the dog isn't used.

The decision to use the dog is generally the handler's, according to the policy.

Source: Bakersfield Police Department

The victim was badly injured, with a nearly severed ear, a bone fracture behind the ear and lacerations to the back of her head and neck. She spent four days in a hospital.

The attack took place even though she wasn't the suspect, who already had been arrested.

The suspect was Aaron Youngblood, son of Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood. Aaron Youngblood had been arrested that morning on drug and gun charges and hadn't lived in the house for at least a month, attorney Daniel Rodriguez said.

Police, acting on a warrant, went to search the house on Delaney Court. The suspect's mother, Victoria Youngblood, who is separated from the sheriff, was sleeping when the K-9 latched onto her head, said Rodriguez, her attorney.

The incident immediately raised questions about police dog training and procedures. The city provided copies of the "Canine Program" section of the BPD policy manual, but specifics regarding training were not immediately available.

Bakersfield police referred media inquiries to City Attorney Ginny Gennaro, who said Friday that what happened "is unfortunate and we certainly hope Victoria Youngblood makes a speedy recovery."

Attorney Rodriguez has said he intends to file a claim against the city in about a month, and Gennaro said the city isn't answering questions about the incident because of it.

Gennaro said in an email that the K-9 involved in the incident is a 60-pound male Belgian Malinois named Bronx. Like many other police dogs he was born and trained in Europe, in this case France.

His handler is Officer Christopher Dalton, a seven-year veteran of the department who has been a K-9 handler since January 2010, Gennaro said. Dalton and Bronx have been partnered together since that time.

Dalton is not on leave, and Bronx is not out of service, she said.

Both Dalton and Bronx attended a 160-hour Basic K-9 School at Master K-9 in Cherry Valley, Calif., and a local 160-hour Basic Narcotics School. Both participate in ongoing training consisting of 20 hours per month.

Bronx had no experience with a prior department, Gennaro said.

 

Questions

Defense attorneys not involved in the case said they had a number of questions.

Bakersfield criminal defense attorney David Torres said that in his experience with K-9 attacks, the suspects typically are resisting arrest.

Torres said he'd like to know more about the entry, and how and if police announced their presence.

"If they did and no one answered, why did they just open up the door and let the dog run wild?" he said. "Is there another means officers could have gained entry where no one could have been hurt?"

Cases aren't always as black and white as people assume, and he wonders what the extenuating circumstances may have been: "What was going on at that time in the cop's mind and why did he allow the dog to attack the person?"

For Bakersfield personal injury attorney Ned Dunphy, myriad questions also surround the circumstances that evening. If police knew the son was in custody, and the only one in the house was the mother, he does not see the need for a K-9 unit.

"It's not like breaking into an apartment with a gang unit and its members inside, where you have to use a K-9 unit as protection," he said.

Dunphy also questioned the dog's attack on a potentially lethal area of the body.

Dunphy predicts all these questions will arise as Youngblood's case moves forward.

"Those are the questions Danny (Rodriguez) is going to be asking and rightfully so," he said.

 

Biting incidents

While uncommon, there have been several instances over the years where the dogs have attacked innocent bystanders.

In 2007, a K-9 lunged at a 14-year-old boy sleeping in bed, causing a puncture wound and lacerations.

Rodriguez was also the attorney for the family of that bite victim, Miguel Perez. Police entered the Perez residence with a K-9 on Dec. 18, 2007 as they searched for armed robbery suspects.

Perez was asleep in his bed underneath a blanket when the K-9 lunged at the blanket, according to reports. Perez suffered a cut across his forehead and above his left ear as well as a puncture below his right eyebrow.

Rodriguez said in the lawsuit that followed that police used excessive force and that the department's policies regarding police dogs are inadequate. On Friday, Rodriguez said he couldn't remember the exact amount of the settlement, but he believed it was between $100,000 and $250,000.

In 1993, a 61-year-old Bakersfield man was awarded $12,000 by a jury for injuries he suffered after a BPD K-9 bit him as he slept on a cot in the backyard of his Virginia Avenue home. Melquiades Ramirez was bitten on his hand, above his eye and on his head on May 1, 1992 when police were looking for a man who fled from a vehicle stop.

And Armando Alonso, 24, suffered two 4-inch-long gashes in his left leg after a BPD K-9 bit him on July 4, 1992. The dog, Vix, a 95-pound German shepherd, got free of his handler and attacked Alonso, who had just gotten out of his car near 10th and M streets.

Officer Tim Fletcher had been on a stakeout with Vix when he tripped over a piece of fencing, allowing the dog to break free.

 

Policy

In the current incident, KBAK Channel 29 has reported that Sgt. Joe Grubbs said police made their presence known before going into the Youngblood home, and the handler was careful about giving announcements. That's in line with BPD policy.

"Unless it would otherwise increase the risk of injury or escape, two clearly audible warnings to announce that a canine will be released if the person does not come forth, shall be made prior to releasing the canine," the policy says.

In addition to being used in the apprehension of suspects, there are K-9s that are also trained in drug detection and tracking.

No rookie on the force is eligible to be a K-9 handler. Minimum requirements include at least two years as a BPD officer.

In addition, the policy says the officer must live within 30 minutes' travel time from Bakersfield city limits, agree to be assigned to the position for a minimum of four years and live in a single-family residence with a fence at least six feet high with locking gates.

In all, the BPD has 10 K-9s, eight in patrol and two narcotics dogs.

-- Californian staff writer Kellie Schmitt contributed to this report.

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