Today, the IPCA released its investigation report into an incident in April 2021, during which a police attack dog was used against a man who violently resisted arrest for having stolen a car. The dog’s bites significantly injured the man, and he required surgery. These significant injuries led NZ Police to notify the IPCA about the incident.
The IPCA found that, in this particular case, the use of an attack dog was justified. Though in the media release accompanying the report, IPCA chair Judge Colin Doherty said:
Because of the likelihood of injury caused by a biting dog, we consider the use of a Police dog to be a significant use of force, only justifiable in specific circumstances. On its own, apprehending the driver of a stolen car will not often warrant such significant force.IPCA Chair Judge Colin Doherty
NZ Police’s response to this report was brief, primarily just saying that NZ Police accepted the IPCA’s findings.
When I investigated NZ Police’s use of attack dogs in 2018, I found that the two most common charges laid following the use of an attack dog were “traffic offences” and “car conversion etc”.
Also, 76% of the incidents where NZ Police set attack dogs on people in 2018, those people were below the “assaultive” threshold. Most of the time, they were recorded as “active resistant”, meaning they were pushing away, pulling away, or running away.
Using attack dogs against people who are unarmed and running away is the norm for NZ Police’s dog handlers, and often they had stolen a car.
So, if the IPCA considers that “On its own, apprehending the driver of a stolen car will not often warrant such significant force [as the use of a Police dog]”, then I can’t help but wonder how many unreported incidents where police set attack dogs on people would be found to be unjustified if investigated by the IPCA.
NZ Police has shown a clear unwillingness to address the harms done by their attack dog programme. In their annual use of force reports, they typically dismiss the incredibly high injury rate of their attack dogs rather than acknowledging it as a real concern. The majority of moderate and serious injuries caused by police use of force are inflicted by their attack dogs.
In this case, NZ Police reported the incident to the IPCA themselves. I don’t know how often this happens for incidents where attack dogs were used. Based on the number of investigation reports published by the IPCA, it seems unlikely to me that NZ Police report every incident during which one of their attack dogs seriously injures someone. Though it may instead be that the IPCA either doesn’t publish its findings for many of these investigations or that it doesn’t always investigate these incidents when they’re reported.
Based on Judge Doherty’s statement and my analysis of NZ Police’s data regarding their use of attack dogs, I think it’s likely that the IPCA would find many unreported uses of attack dogs by NZ Police to have not been justified under the law. Considering the significant harm done by this tactical option, I’d like to see the IPCA conduct an audit NZ Police’s use of attack dogs.