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Aurora paid $80,000 to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit last week after one of the city’s K-9 officers ordered a police dog to bite a woman who was lying on the ground while being restrained by multiple police officers.
Caylaanne Connor, then 22, put her hands up when officers surrounded her and then threw her to the ground in March 2019, according to body camera footage of the incident. With two officers on top of her, she was talking to police when Officer Robert Wong ordered his dog to bite her in the leg, according to the footage.
In a police report, Officer Nicholas Langdon wrote that Connor was “feigning compliance” and that her right hand “went directly to her waistband.” Wong ordered the dog to bite because Connor could have been reaching for a weapon, the report said.
She was unarmed and was not reaching for a weapon, but rather for methamphetamine kept in a sunglasses case, police reported. In her lawsuit, Connor said her hand was pinned under her body and she could not move it.
Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson said she first learned about the 2019 case and settlement on Wednesday, and that after reviewing the context of the case, the dog bite was “within compliance” of the department’s training and policies at the time.
“I can’t say this was an excessive use of force,” she said.
The police department in October began an audit of its K-9 unit, Wilson said, and is revising the way dogs are trained and used in the field.
“We are changing the way we deploy these animals,” she said. “We are definitely looking at best practices and talking about reaching out to national experts to make sure we are doing what the public expects of us.”
One of those changes will be to only send police dogs to a particular list of violent crimes, Sgt. Jeremy McElroy said. The circumstances around Connor’s arrest — a parked stolen vehicle — will no longer qualify for a K-9 response, he said.
Police stopped Connor on March 29, 2019, after she entered the driver’s seat of a parked van that had been reported stolen, according to the lawsuit. She believed the car belonged to a friend, the lawsuit said.
Officers pulled her from the minivan, threw her to the ground and attempted to handcuff her. She was on her stomach, with one hand under her body, when Wong told his dog, named Loki, to bite.
The dog initially did not respond to Wong’s repeated orders, body camera footage shows, until Wong pushed the dog’s head toward Connor’s legs.
“You can see the dog is actually not wanting to bite her,” said Matthew Greife, an attorney with Baumgartner Law who represented Connor in her lawsuit against Aurora. “She’s not flailing around, she’s not doing anything. That dog is not trained to bite people like that.”
McElroy said the dog was brand new, and that it’s typical for a newly trained dog to at first hesitate to bite a human, no matter the circumstances of the arrest, because the dogs are trained on decoys.
Connor screamed in agony when the dog bit into her leg and thrashed its head around. Wong praised the dog, shouting “Good boy” several times as Connor begged for it to stop. Wilson said the officer’s praise was part of the dog’s training. McElroy said the dog was able to hold on for several seconds because a collar used to remove the dog after it bites was tangled.
“I realize this video is hard to watch,” Wilson said. “…It’s very difficult to watch, and I get that, and I’m not going to take that away from people watching. But I do want you and others to know that there is context behind what is happening. Unfortunately, It’s never going to be a pretty thing when a dog is deployed.”
Greife said the officers’ reports do not match up with the body camera footage. The involved officers were not disciplined.
“The fact that nobody catches that (discrepancy) on a use-of-force review, it is either gross incompetence by the reviewers or they intentionally didn’t want to do anything about it,” he said. “Neither option is good. They’re both pretty troubling.”
The police department faced heavy scrutiny this week when an independent investigation into the death of Elijah McClain found that officers had no legal basis to stop, frisk or choke the 23-year-old, who had been walking home from a store when police stopped him after receiving a report of a suspicious person.
Paramedics injected McClain with a powerful sedative, ketamine, and McClain suffered a heart attack and later died.
Wilson said Wednesday she alerted the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, which also is probing McClain’s death, to the dog bite incident after she found out about it Wednesday.
“I wanted to be completely transparent with the attorney general’s office,” she said. “…I am willing to let others come in and look at our patterns and practices; I welcome that.”
“I wanted to be completely transparent with the attorney general’s office,” she said, “so I reached out to them to let them know this case is being looked at by the media… and I wanted them to look at it as well. I am willing to let others come in and look at our patterns and practices, I welcome that.”