Investigation underway in use of deadly force against man in Wilkinsburg
The Allegheny County district attorney said Wednesday his office is investigating whether a Port Authority officer was justified in using deadly force against a fleeing homeless man who had been taken down by a police dog, was stabbing it to death and was in turn killed by police.
District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said his office sent a memo this week to police chiefs in the county asking them how they use their K-9s and what protection they offer the dogs.
His memo was sent days after Port Authority police shot and killed Bruce Tyrone Kelley Jr. Sunday in Wilkinsburg. Kelley had been drinking with his father near the busway. Kelley reportedly fought with Port Authority officers who arrived to investigate, then fled. Officers used a Taser to try to subdue Kelley, but, officials said, he continued to struggle. That’s when they let the dog, Aren, off his leash, county police have said.
Zappala told the Tribune-Review his office is investigating whether the officer’s use of deadly force was justifiable.
Zappala said he wants to make sure dogs have appropriate protection, whether a protective vest or something else, for the jobs they do for their departments.
“I’m willing to invest in that,” Zappala said. “If they have an idea that would better protect their dog, then let me know, and I will figure out a way to get that addressed.”
The police dog Aren was not wearing a protective vest. Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie has said that a vest might not have helped anyway, because Aren died of a stab wound to the mouth.
Aren, a 5-year-old German shepherd, had been in service with the Port Authority police for about four years.
According to Port Authority’s K-9 policy, which the Trib obtained Wednesday, a K-9 officer is supposed to give a verbal warning before releasing the dog when a police dog is used to search an outdoor area or building.
Officers should say, “Surrender now, or I will deploy a K-9 and he will find you and bite you,” the policy states.
In deciding whether to sic a police dog on a suspect, officers are supposed take several factors into consideration, including location, time of day and the potential for injury to officers, citizens or the K-9 team.
K-9 officers should consider the type and severity of the crime, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers and the public and whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to avoid arrest by fighting.
When asked whether Port Authority police followed the agency’s policies during Sunday’s incident, agency spokesman Adam Brandolph referred questions to Allegheny County police and the district attorney’s office, which are handling the investigation.
“We’re not commenting on any aspect of the incident while it remains under investigation,” Brandolph said.
Federal and state laws as well as policies of individual departments define when an officer can use a K-9 to take down a suspect, said David “Lou” Ferland, executive director of the United States Police Canine Association in Washington and a retired K-9 officer.
As in all cases in which force is involved, investigators would look at those laws and policies and weigh whether the officer was justified.
“All the situations are different. Sometimes, a police officer has seconds to decide on a course of action,” Ferland said.
Eight police dogs have died nationwide in the line of duty this year, he said.
County Councilman Jim Ellenbogen, chair of County Council’s Public Safety Committee, has raised concerns about the use of Aren, who was primarily a bomb-sniffing dog.
Experts say it’s not unusual for a K-9 to be trained to detect drugs or bombs as well as serve as a line of defense for an officer.
“The dogs are versatile in that they can do multiple tasks,” Ferland said.
John Brannon, owner of Shallow Creek Kennels in Sharpsville, said most K-9s are “dual purpose dogs” trained in bomb detection and pursuits and apprehension.
The Alliance for Police Accountability, an activist group that monitors police performance and behavior, held a public forum Wednesday night in Larimer to discuss issues related to use of force.
“It is our position that we do not need to use police dogs when (trying to subdue a suspect),” said Brandi Fisher, the group’s president. “We need to use them when people are hiding in the woods. We need to use them to sniff bombs. We need to use them for things like that.”
Several in the audience said they were outraged by Kelley’s death.
“Why does someone need to be shot?” said Mel Packer, 70, of Point Breeze. “If you got them surrounded, then you simply keep them surrounded until they decide to put down the knife. But you don’t have to sic a dog on them.”
Staff writers Melissa Daniels and Megan Guza contributed.