SANTA ROSA – Deputies with the Sonoma County's Sheriff's Office used their dogs "too quickly" against suspected offenders from 2022 to 2023, an oversight board said in a recently released report.
The Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO) pored over three incidents of K-9 bites against suspected offenders in the county in that period, regardless of whether a complaint was filed.
The IOLERO said the use of canine bites was implemented by Sheriff's Office deputies without "appropriate de-escalation consideration, and without assessing proportionality of the force to the suspected offense and/or threat posed by the person."
The Sheriff's Office policy of using dog bites against suspected offenders had "some broad problems", according to the board, which found that it relies on "whether the person's suspected crime was 'serious' but does not define that term."
"This lack of definition undercuts the ability to assess whether the force was 'objectively' reasonable," the IOLERO said.
Sheriff's deputies relied on the gravity of the suspect's past crimes rather than the seriousness of the offender's suspected crime at present, according to the board, which also flagged the Sheriff's Office's guidelines as "being more permissive than what may be necessary or legally allowable" in approving the use of canine bites.
"This is a significant problem, but one that can be cured by reassessing policy and training," the board said.
The IOLERO recommended that the law enforcement agency revisit its canine policy. The board also urged changes, such as clearly defining "serious offenses" in its policy and clarifying whether "seriousness" applies to the offense for which the suspected offender is being arrested or a prior one.
In response, the Sheriff's Office said in a statement that its personnel have "noticed an apparent deficiency in the (IOLERO) auditors' training and/or experience relative to law enforcement tactics."
"It is inadequate when audits are completed by individuals who do not have the appropriate training and experience required to render opinions on the actions of our deputies," the Sheriff's Office said.
The Sheriff's Office called on IOLERO to ensure its auditors "receive appropriate training, especially in the area of use of force, before providing opinions on these types of cases."
"This is a highly complex area of law that takes a great deal of understanding to evaluate appropriately. Additionally, we recommend that IOLERO refrain from relying on public perception or opinion when conducting their audits, as it is impractical to accurately gauge the thoughts and perspectives of every individual in the community," the Sheriff's Office said.
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