Local community members passionately aired their views about the Gainesville Police Department’s K-9 unit at a special meeting of the City Commission Wednesday.
The hours-long meeting, which at times was overcome by emotional outpours, saw about 100 people gathered in the chamber at its peak. It served as a platform both for members of the general public as well as police officers to give their stance on a law enforcement unit that has been at the center of public debate since the July mauling of Terrell Bradley by one of its dogs.
Among roughly 50 public commenters, many called for the unit’s abolition. Others suggested resources devoted to law enforcement could better be directed toward serving the community in other ways.
By the end of the meeting, the Commission passed a motion to direct staff to look into what the police department would look like with a reformed or abolished K-9 unit and to examine how other areas navigate the issue. The motion also calls for an exploration of a potential citizen oversight board and a cultural audit of the K-9 unit.
Keyon Young, a 23-year-old Gainesville resident, said he felt as if his encounters with police officers would often escalate.
“You’re supposed to be a public servant,” Young said. “Control should not be the most important thing when we’re dealing with any situation.”
Another public commenter, who said she was a UF student, spoke forcefully about her feelings in the presence of law enforcement.
“I’m so, so sick of being fearful every single time I see a police officer,” she said.
Earlier in the meeting, GPD had the opportunity to defend its K-9 unit. Anthony Ferrara, the commander of GPD’s Patrol Support Bureau, spoke of what the department considers some of the unit’s virtues, including its roles in ensuring the safety of officers and members of the public and in community engagement and missing persons cases.
Jaime Kurnick, GPD’s chief inspector, then delved into some statistics associated with the unit, including its bite ratio from recent years. The ratio is measured as the percentage of K-9 related apprehensions in which the suspect was bitten.
Kurnick’s presentation revealed the unit has had about a 10% bite ratio in recent years which the department characterized as relatively low.
Notably, the statistics presented by GPD confirmed one of the most prominent critiques of the unit: Those who are bitten are primarily Black males.
This is also in line with GPD data obtained by the Alligator, which shows in the overwhelming majority of cases in which K-9 bites occurred during apprehensions from 2016 through 2020, the targeted suspect was Black.
In 2020, GPD had 122 cases in which K-9s assisted or apprehended; of those cases, 12 involved a bite of the suspect for a ratio of under 10%. GPD records show that, of the 12 bite cases, nine involved Black suspects.
There were also 12 bites in 2019, but the ratio was just under 6% because the number of K-9 assists was significantly greater with203 cases. That year, 10 out of the 12 bitten suspects were Black.
The same pattern is revealed in 2018. In a year with 14 bites — which was about 7% of K-9 apprehensions cases that year — all but one of the bitten suspects were Black.
Over the years, some suspects involved in K-9 apprehensions were treated at local hospitals such North Florida Millhopper and Shands for related injuries, according to the data.
Among the most important players in Wednesday’s meeting was Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker, who called for the session. She spoke passionately about the need for equity reform in the department. After GPD’s presentation, she played two graphic videos from other cities of K-9 mauling cases to highlight the shortcomings.
As the screams of the video’s victims filled the chamber, some attendees were noticeably disturbed. Over the course of public comment, community members expressed their gratitude to Duncan-Walker for her presentation.
Duncan-Walker then played a video of the Terrell Bradley mauling. Before her presentation, however, she said the Bradley incident was a chance to reflect on the nature of law enforcement in the city.
“This is not solely about Terrell Bradley tonight, but what happened to him gives us the opportunity to open a dialogue that we simply must have about how we police this community,” she said.
In light of GPD’s argument that it followed its own guidelines in executing Bradley’s K-9 argument, she responded that such a defense was inadequate.
“Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right,” she said. “There needs to be a very serious evaluation and analysis of what our internal policies allow.”
She also brought attention to the historically malign relationship the Black community has had with law enforcement dogs.
“It is not lost on me how dogs were used to apprehend those who were enslaved,” she said. “It is not lost on me how coming down through the Civil Rights Movement dogs were used against those who marched peacefully. It is not lost on me how dogs have been used recently in peaceful protests.”
As public comment neared conclusion, GPD Chief Lonnie Scott gave a passionate defense of his department, praising what he termed the nobility of officers in tackling situations that others would not.
Scott also noted he was open to discussions of reforming the unit. He also expressed dismay at the tenor of the meeting, taking issue with allegations that the department is racist.
“When we’re out there doing what we need to do to try to save lives, I don’t see a lot of these people there,” he said.
As the meeting adjourned, it remained unclear what the exact future of the K-9 unit would be, whether any policies would truly change and whether the unit would be abolished as many attendees demanded or simply reformed.
Contact Omar at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @OAteyah.
Omar Ateyah is a third-year journalism student and the Alligator's Race and Equity reporter. He previously served as the Alligator's crime reporter and as a news assistant on the Metro Desk. He enjoys going on long, thoughtful walks.