A New Plymouth police dog handler has been cleared of misconduct after deploying his dog during the arrest of two youths. The police dog pictured retired before the arrest and was not involved. Photo / George Novak
A decision by a police officer to set his dog on two youths suspected of stealing cars was against police policy but justified in the circumstances, a watchdog has found.
One of the youths was found with the police dog latched to his arm and was taken to hospital.
An Independent Police Conduct Authority [IPCA] decision released today found the actions were justified during an incident in New Plymouth early on February 14, 2021, where a man called police after discovering someone had attempted to break into his car.
An officer soon arrived, hearing a loud screeching near the scene. He went to investigate and found a damaged vehicle dumped on the road. He called for a dog handler.
The handler attempted to track the offenders for 20 minutes, before returning to his van.
Moments later, the handler discovered young people in another car with a smashed window, about 100 metres from the dumped car. One young person was told to wait by the vehicle, while two others fled.
The handler yelled at the two youths, threatening to release the dog if they kept running. They did, and the officer followed through on his warning, commanding the dog to bite the fleeing youths.
This was in violation of police procedure as the dog had not sighted the offenders beforehand.
Both youths were arrested by the officer, with one of the pair found with the dog latched to his arm. He was taken to hospital.
The authority gave consideration to the rise of car thefts occurring in Taranaki at the time, which led to the original attending officer describing the callout as a “hot job”.
“We were, as a station, under siege and we couldn’t cope with the volume of cars being stolen and we couldn’t even attend most of the jobs,” the first officer at the scene told the authority.
“This was actually like a hot job for us, because of the way these kids have been offending ... we haven’t been getting jobs where we get on to them.”
The arresting officer, the dog handler, told the authority he considered an arrest was required as he did not know the identity of the young people and was confident they would continue to offend if they weren’t arrested.
“What happens if I track them and they go steal a car and crash ... as far as I was concerned I was happy with my justification for deploying the dog.”
An experienced handler with seven dogs over the course of his career, the officer said he understands the differences between the animals, describing the dog that bit the youth as a “soft dog” and “very cloth grabby.”
He accepted police policy dictates the dog must have sight of the offender, but in this case deemed that he was sure it was the right offender and did not require the dog to sight him.
The authority ultimately concluded that the arrest of the youths, and the use of the dog, were warranted in the circumstances.
“Given that no one else was in the vicinity who could have been bitten by the dog, we find that even though Officer A’s actions were contrary to policy, they were nonetheless justified in the circumstances.”
Central district commander superintendent Scott Fraser said he accepted the IPCA findings.
“The arrests took place in the context of a large increase in the volume of car thefts in and around New Plymouth.
“We trust our officers to make the best decisions possible at the time to ensure people’s safety and wellbeing, and routinely look at what lessons can be learned.”