Even Our Police Dogs are Racist – When Their Human Handlers Are

Here’s a statistic that should have you shaking with rage:

The Department of Justice’s report on the Ferguson Police Department is full of eye-catching numbers that reveal a culture plagued by significant racism. Statistically significant. For instance, nearly ninety per cent of the people who prompted a “use of force” by the F.P.D. were black. Even among such skewed percentages, there are some standouts. Among cases in which a suspect was bitten by an attack dog and the suspect’s race was recorded, what percentage were black?

A hundred per cent.

Let that sink in for a minute.

People treat dogs like they don’t share our prejudices, but forget they’re handled by humans, and eager to please those humans. They don’t have an abstract philosophy of life. They don’t have an independent morality that tells them always being sicced on people of color is wrong. They’re pretty good reflections of what people teach them and allow them to do.

We need to remember that when people are saying, “The dog alerted to X.” It’s not as objective as we like to think. The dogs are clever, and trying to please, and pick up on prejudices both conscious and unconscious. The article shows they’ll alert when there’s nothing there, just because their handler is putting off signals saying something should be there, and they expect the dog to find it. And handlers don’t always listen to their dogs, so the dogs learn not to mention it when something is there.

A friend of mine recently saw a detection dog at a Metro-North station in Connecticut go into full alert when a fifty-something white businessman in a suit walked by. The trainer pulled the dog back and nodded for the man to pass. My friend noted, “Training a dog is not something that happens once and then it’s over. They are always being trained.” And so that Metro-North dog has begun a kind of continuing education. Repeat that action and the dog will learn: give middle-aged white guys in brogues a pass.

Fantastic. What a beautiful example of prejudice in action. This, folks, is why profiling doesn’t work: all the drug-runners or terrorists need to do is find someone who doesn’t fit the profile, and use them to do their dirty work. The dogs will say there’s a problem, but the human handlers will let their preconceptions (and probable fear of getting into a pissing match with someone with more social power than they have) overrule the dog’s judgement, and there goes the whole point of having a dog there to begin with.

I used to have faith in law enforcement. I used to trust the K-9s and their handlers. That trust is very severely eroded by now. And while I think we can improve, fix some of the problems, and reduce the various isms that are staining the profession, I believe now we need to always retain a healthy skepticism. Lots of someones need to watch the watchmen. And their little dogs, too.

Photo is a panting police dog with a badge on its collar. It looks like a German Shepherd, but its ears are floppy.
Police dog photo courtesy Michael Pereckas (CC BY 2.0)
Even Our Police Dogs are Racist – When Their Human Handlers Are

12 thoughts on “Even Our Police Dogs are Racist – When Their Human Handlers Are

  1. 2

    Dogs have managed to live with humans over 1000’s of years because they are expert at reading human behaviors. Anyone who has lived with a canine companion can tell you how well they can distinguish between apparently identical actions. I can get the keys to move a car out of the garage and…meh. I get the keys with the intent of going to the store and my dog is ALL about going with. Assuming my girl is not psychic, she has learned whatever differentiates the two actions and behaves accordingly.

    It is no surprise that dogs read the actions of their handlers and alert whenever there is a need for a bogus search. The supreme court has ruled that a dog alert is sufficient for a search, even though they have a fairly high error rate.


  2. 5

    To throw another possible interpretation out there, and not one which actually makes this better, if 100% of the times race is recorded, the people bitten are black, how many times is race not recorded because white male is the default for person? I was reading the short story anthology Women Destroy Science Fiction (really interesting, for anyone who hasn’t come across it yet) last week and one of the non-fiction articles talked about how qualifiers only get added if someone deviates from the image that the first word generates – e.g. soldier vs “lady soldier” was one of the examples they gave. Thinking about it kind of pulled me up on some of my own assumptions, so it seems possible that something similar could be going on here.

  3. 7

    Isn’t it hard to interpret the statistics without actual numbers? If 90% of uses of force involving dogs were black (which is already bad, in fact, it may be the main point), we expect dog bites in 90% of case +/- whatever is statistically significant? How many such incidents are there, how many bites, and how many instances of bites with unrecorded race?

    Regardless, ‘all the drug-runners or terrorists need to do is find someone who doesn’t fit the profile, and use them to do their dirty work.’ is well-known to happen in multiple parts of the world. Women are thought to be used as gun and drug mules pretty systematically.

    Meanwhile, it’s also widely supposed that if the cops stood outside London’s business district in evening rush hour and checked the pockets and briefcases of every well-paid white male going by, they could probably arrest every other one on drug offences.

  4. 8

    I’ve posted this at Ed’s place before but just as a reminder: During a K-9 search, the dog does not have to alert to anything. The cop can just say the dog did and there’s no way to prove otherwise. I have seen it happen for real in person. Forget all about training methods and the dog’s accuracy and reacting to covert cues and desire to please/get a reward and all the rest. If the cop says it did, then it did, as far as the law is concerned.

    Doesn’t that make you feel better?

  5. 10

    Police dogs are sworn officers of the court just like the human cops, so it’s impossible for them to give false testimony. Forcing them to wear cameras too would be an insult and unpatriotic and you probably hate America, don’t you? That’s what I thought, now stand over there with your hands in plain sight while we tear the absolute shit out of your car looking for something we already know isn’t there because it’s time you learned who’s in charge around here.

  6. 12

    @Katybe, as a 53 year old white male I always assume that, unless otherwise specified, the narrative, whatever it may be, refers to a middle aged white guy. Unless of course the narrative is about a person doing something illegal, immoral, or otherwise NOT QUITE RIGHT in the eyes of the LORD or some other responsible white male of middle age. I hope that this helps. If not, my dog just alerted, and you’re under arrest for sedition, drug trafficking, driving while not white or male, and other stuff my dog says you did.

    Also, in the last election, did you vote the way your husband, father, brother, male escort told you to? If not, I’m afraid my dog just alerted again and you’ll have to come with me to the station for a full cavity search. No gloves.

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