Gainesville residents call on city commission to abolish K9 unit

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The Gainesville City Commission’s special meeting on Wednesday about the K9 unit largely pitted law enforcement officers pleading to preserve the unit against community members calling to dismantle it.

The meeting was called following the Gainesville K9 mauling of Terrell Bradley – who lost his eye after running from a traffic stop this summer – an internal affairs report revealing misconduct by officers following Bradley’s arrest, and a lawsuit by a former K9 officer alleging rampant racism in the unit.

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker, center, said the police already had two opportunities to present their side. This meeting, she said, was the people’s turn to talk. Mayor Elect Harvey Ward, right, seconded her motion to hold the meeting. (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

The commission ended the meeting by unanimously passing a motion by Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker to direct staff to bring back the following information to the newly elected commission in January: what it might look like to abolish or modify the K9 unit, and what other cities have done to transition away from relying on K9 units; possible frameworks for a citizen oversight board “with teeth” rather than the current police advisory board; a cultural audit of the K9 unit to identify the issues.

The meeting began with two very different presentations.

The first, by the police department, touted the reasons for the K9 unit: community engagement, de-escalation, and searching for missing persons. It reiterated that no policy violations were found in the arrest of Bradley. It pointed to a 10% bite ratio when the K9 unit is deployed, and how small those 129 deployments were compared to the more than 93,000 calls for service last year.

Chief Lonnie Scott argued K9 apprehension was only used as a response to resistance, and was necessary for the safety of officers and citizens.

Duncan-Walker opened her presentation with graphic videos of K9 maulings from elsewhere in the country, ending with the body camera footage of Bradley’s mauling.

Gainesville community members watch the body camera footage of the K9 mauling of unarmed Black resident Terrell Bradley, which caused the loss of his right eye, two broken fingers, 12 stitches near his temple and spinal leakage. On the far right sits Kali Blount, a police advisory board member who urged the commission to act. “The east is the happy hunting ground to go do sport with the dogs,” Blount said. “This is a cancer. You got to get this malignancy out.” (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

She said the police were shielded from liability.

“Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right,” she said, and pointed to K9 reform discussions nationally.

“Consider the alternatives,” she said. “The stakes are high.”

Nearly 100 community members were present and public comment lasted almost three hours. Less than a dozen people spoke in defense of the unit, with all but a few of those being law enforcement.

The roughly two dozen calling to abolish the unit suggested funneling the budget instead into community services targeting the roots of violence, at-capacity and underfunded domestic violence shelters, rehabilitation centers and crisis centers, mental health services and technology that could replace the use of K9s.

“We can put people on the moon but we can’t do this without K9 units?” one community member questioned.

Though roughly 20% of Gainesville’s residents are Black, they make up about 85% of those bit by the city’s K9s, reflecting the national trend of disproportionate K9 violence against Black citizens. Some of those who are bit locally are juveniles.

Duncan-Walker pointed to one local incident in which a 10-year-old Black child was riding his bicycle in his neighborhood and a K9 was dispatched. The boy attempted to run to his mother but only made it to his doorstep before the K9 bit into his leg, she said.

Those defending the need for the unit frequently brought up rape victims in their rhetoric, but more than a few self-identified rape and sexual assault survivors in the room decried that argument as abhorrent and called to abolish the unit.

Others labeled references to violent perpetrators a straw man argument. They called for data on when K9s were used to find missing children and rapists. The statistics presented by the police department showed the K9s frequently bit people who were nonviolently resisting arrest or fleeing.

Law enforcement said K9s were used for de-escalation, but some community members pointed out that if Bradley wasn’t stopped that night, he would’ve just gone home. They argued it was officers who escalated the situation.

One public commenter said he had worked on the K9 unit beginning in 1976 and wrote its first policy manual. He said the K9s saved his life twice and argued they’re an alternative to deadly force.

“So it’s OK to brutalize us if we don’t die?” community organizer Chanae Jackson asked.

“Please don’t take away our resources,” Sgt. Joseph Castor said later in an impassioned plea.

Shortly after, Scott pulled Castor from the room after community members cried out that he called community organizer Danielle Chanzes “trash” after she spoke to abolish the unit.

While city vacancies overall have decreased over the last two years, Interim City Manager Cynthia Curry said, police department vacancies have risen.

“We’re one of the best agencies in this country,” Gainesville Police Chief Lonnie Scott said, jabbing his finger down on the podium to cheers from law enforcement, boos from community members, and calls for order from the dais. (Katie Hyson/WUFT News)

Scott argued abolishing the K9 unit would worsen the vacancy crisis, which he framed more as an issue of retention than recruitment. Though 11 hires are scheduled to start in January, he said, three to four others are leaving this month. He said more than 30% sworn officer positions are vacant.

He pointed to noncompetitive salaries as a driving factor, but Duncan-Walker argued culture also played a role – she said former officers told her they would stay for less if the department were different.

“I didn’t hold this meeting tonight to vilify you,” Duncan-Walker told the police force. “I held this meeting because I don’t care who you are, you have to be accountable.”

She pointed to a 2009 report from the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the pending lawsuit by a former K9 officer, both outlining racial issues in the Gainesville Police Department.

“How can we trust and work with the officers if you’re treating us like slaves and animals?” resident Kenya Ellis challenged.

Some community members offered ideas for reform:

  • Give more training to police on use of force levels
  • Muzzle the K9s
  • Train the community on how to respond and cooperate with the police
  • Use another breed of dog for the K9 unit
  • Put shock collars on the K9s that could immediately incapacitate them
  • Don’t pursue unarmed fleeing suspects
  • Retire problematic K9s
  • Fire the officers involved in Bradley’s arrest

Scott said they will make some tweaks to the K9 policy, without specifying what those might be.

Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut argued a subcommittee structure was needed for the commission, with one assigned to public safety, so the commission could take a deeper look at these issues. She also called for the retirement of Ranger, the K9 who mauled Bradley.

Though Mayor Lauren Poe voted in support of examining the possibility of a citizen oversight board with more power to make changes to the police department, he said the commission looked at the idea four years ago and found that the current police advisory board is the farthest they could go within state statutes.

Curry proposed in-service training days for city employees – including the police department – at least every other month beginning in January, to allow them to focus on internal problems including equity and inclusion issues.

Commissioners Reina Saco and Adrian Hayes-Santos were absent for the vote.

The newly elected commission will inherit the debate over the K9 unit in January.

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