Police dogs and their handlers tracked plain-clothed officers around a parking lot near Texas Way.
Police dogs and their handlers tracked plain-clothed officers around a parking lot near Texas Way.

The Fort Lawton Army Reserve Center may be closed but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a desirable training ground, particularly for Seattle’s furry finest.

Plans are in place for the city to eventually redevelop the 34-acre site through partnerships with Catholic Housing Services and Habitat for Humanity. In the interim, it has provided an out-of-the-way space for both the Seattle fire and police departments to get in some training.

Seattle Police Officer Chris Gregorio says the parking lot off Texas Way is a little small, but it provides a nice mix of hard and soft surfaces for training police dogs, who follow their noses to locate hard-to-find suspects.

Officers with the SPD K-9 Unit are required to train with their police dogs every day, and have an all-day training once a month. There has to be a lot of training, Gregorio said, because the stakes are high. If a dog makes a mistake, particularly a harmful one, it’s their human partners and the department that have to answer for it.

“Those kinds of bad cases can cause your entire K-9 unit to go away,” Gregorio said.

The Seattle Police Department on July 31 submitted a revised policy on use-of-force canine deployment for approval by the federal court overseeing SPD’s consent decree with the Department of Justice.

“The prompt and proper utilization of a trained canine team has proven to be a valuable resource in law enforcement,” the policy states. “When properly used with strict handler control, a canine team increases the degree of safety to persons within a contained search area, enhances individual officer safety, increases the likelihood of suspect apprehension, and may reduce the amount of time necessary to conduct a search. At the same time, handlers must make all reasonable efforts to avoid unnecessary and unnecessarily injurious bites.”


Members of the K-9 unit met for an all-day training at the Discovery Park Environmental Learning Center on Tuesday, July 30, the day before the policy change was submitted for approval. K-9 Unit Sgt. Steve White led a class with his human officers before the police dogs were taken to Fort Lawton for field exercises with their handlers.

White has been working with law enforcement dogs since 1975, when he was a handler with the Military Police Corps. He started with the Seattle Police Department in 1987. A New York native, White said he was walking dogs while other kids were out playing.

“I’ve been doing dog work since I was about 12,” he said.

White said the old policies for canine deployment has been in place since 2012, but there was confusion about deploying a police dog off its lead when seizing a suspect as opposed to searches.

“So it was a linguistic miss that didn’t get noticed when they first wrote this,” he said. “And I’m writing a training manual, because there has never been one.”

White, whom younger officers in the K-9 Unit call Pepa, spent the July 30 classroom time going over indicators a police dog gives while tracking a suspect. Being able to read a police dog conducting scent work is important for not only tracking, but also when a K-9 officer has to back up their partner in court. All police dogs are different, and only their handler can testify on their behalf.

“You’re certified as a team, so that’s what allows you in court to say, ‘I’ve trained with this dog for thousands of hours, I live with him, I know how he acts,’” said Officer Ryan Huteson.

The policy under review by Judge James Robart would require annual training and certification to ensure a handler can make their canine follow orders whether to bite or not, and when to release a bite. Quarterly testing would be required to prove canines can follow those orders.

“Handlers who are not capable of demonstrating such control shall not be active in the field until the situation is rectified,” the proposed policy states.

Plain-clothed officers interested in joining the K-9 Unit acted as suspects during the July 30 training. They started by letting some of the dogs attack their arms, covered in a protective bite sleeve. Officers gave the bite order during various scenarios, but Gregorio said police dogs also can engage a suspect without a command, depending on the situation.

The proposed policy change states a canine could bite a suspect only when there is a reasonable belief or it is known that they are armed or capable and willing to cause physical harm to a handler or others, are in the process of escaping, or “engage in active aggression,” which is similar to what is currently in the police manual.

“Should a bite occur, the handler will as rapidly as possible determine if the suspect is armed and call off the dog at the first possible moment the canine can be safely released,” the proposed policy change states. “If the suspect is not armed, the handler shall order the canine immediately to release the bite.”

Duration of a bite must be included in a handler’s supplemental police report.

Huteson said all dogs track on leads, unless there are strong safety concerns, such as if a suspect is believed to be armed and dangerous. An officer will need to get permission to let their dog loose from a lieutenant or higher-ranking officer.

“If the handler is unable to contact a canine unit supervisor, approval must be sought from a supervisor in charge at the scene before the canine can be deployed,” according to the new policy proposal. “The approving supervisor will not serve as a canine handler in the deployment.”

Other acceptable reasons to let a canine off their lead includes when officers are in confined spaces that make them susceptible to an ambush and stealth or surprise is required for officer safety.

“The dog as a use of force is a secondary tool,” White said, with a canine’s primary purpose being to track a suspect. “There’s no other tool we’ve got that finds the guy that got away.”

A canine use of force is categorized as a Type II, and there were 366 total Type II uses of force in 2018, according to a July SPD Use of Force Report. The report does not distinguish which cases involved canines or other uses of force that could cause bodily harm, such as tasers, pepper spray and hard take-downs.

More than 80 percent of SPD’s use-of-force cases were Type I, meaning they caused “transitory pain.” Type I includes pointing a gun at a person (not simply displaying a gun), deploying blast balls during a protest, or using restraints that limit motion.

White said there have been few bites in the hundreds of canine deployments he’s seen in his time with the department, and police dogs have the psychological advantage of getting suspects to comply with orders when they otherwise might not. He said there have been attempted suicide-by-cop cases in the past that were resolved peaceably using police dogs.

“The other benefit a dog has is expendability. I love dogs and this is my ethical dilemma,” White said.

At the end of the day, he said, White would rather console a handler than an officer’s spouse. He notes SPD has never had a canine die in the line of duty.

“We get accused by some old-school canine trainers of our dogs being too soft,” White said.

SPD makes sure its canine dogs are sociable and can interact well with the public, he said, because the unit couldn’t be successful in an urban setting otherwise.

The proposed policy change states officers must issue a verbal warning to a suspect before using a canine to subdue them, which handlers did during their July 30 training scenarios, as well as establishing a credible threat to public and officer safety. Under the policy change, officers would need to repeat these warnings, which include disclosing the potential for a suspect to be bit, when moving within part or different floors of a building, and a “reasonable amount of time” has to be afforded to a suspect to surrender.

“Where there is a reasonable belief that the suspect speaks a language other than English, an officer or other individual fluent in that language should be summoned to the scene if available and the exigency of the situation permits,” according to the proposed policy.

Officers would also need to consider the age and severity of a crime when engaging with juvenile suspects, as well as those with a mental health issue or disability. Canines may not be deployed as a means of crowd control.

“Canine teams should not be used to apprehend anyone suspected to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol if no other serious crime is involved, nor the mentally disturbed or disabled if no other serious crime is involved.”

The Seattle Police Department’s K-9 Unit is solely comprised of tracking canines, and there are no drug-detection dogs, Huteson said.

Officers require an exact physical location where a suspect was last seen to have a chance of successfully tracking them, Huteson said. Heavily populated areas are not ideal, because there are too many people with too many scents, such as in downtown and Capitol Hill, he said. Suspects often hide in neighborhoods, and as long as police dogs continue to be successful there, he said, the K-9 Unit will still have a role to play in Seattle.

White said police dogs used to be deployed to track car prowlers due to that and auto thefts being the most frequent property crimes in Seattle, which they still are. However, the cost did not outweigh the potential for a suspect being bitten, White said, and so they are no longer used for these crimes, which is unfortunate because Queen Anne and Magnolia are “prime hunting grounds for car prowls.”

SPD used to have a breeding program in the ‘90s, said White, who showed officers a track by one of those dogs. Quasar had more than 300 captures during his time in service.

“All that entire litter were terrific,” White said.

Most police departments now source police dogs from a company in Pennsylvania, which acquires them from breeders in Europe, Huteson said. The cost of one police dog is $10,000, he said. His partner, Delta, was acquired through a donation by Delta Airlines. White said Delta is an impressive tracker, and he’d love to have a few more police dogs like him.

Officers with the K-9 Unit are only focused on responding to crime scenes that require assistance by a police dog. When officers are not responding to an incident, they’re training with their police dogs, Huteson said.

“You get what you put into it.”

White shared with handlers on July 30 the eight scent work indicators as taught by behaviorist Dr. Steve Mackenzie, which the sergeant said he learned about at a conference. Mackenzie shared those indicators over beer and pizza, White said, writing them down on a greasy napkin.

“I grabbed that napkin and put it in my pocket, because that was gold,” White said.

Indicators that a police dog has the right scent include how they pull on their lead, carry their tail, move around a spot, swing their head, stride and breathe. The dogs can sniff up to 300 times a minute if they’re on to something, and well-trained handlers will notice a popping sound, White said. That’s a turbinate pop; turbinates being all of the vessels, tissue and bones in the nasal passageway.

When it comes to training or a real track, White told officers not to encourage their dogs along the way, but to let them work independently.

“Shut your mouth, open your ears, let the dog work,” he said.

While the policy change may cause some temporary discomfort, White said, he doesn’t seeing it having a big impact on how the K-9 Unit operates.

“It’s not going to change the way we do business in a large fashion.”