Police canines are used often in high-priority crimes, but not often released in pursuit

Tuesday, April 20, 2010
K-9 officer Jeff Bourbon trains Schupo, the newest dog in the Cape Girardeau K-9 unit, on April 13. Schupo, which means protection officer in German, will train for eight weeks before starting his career with the police department. (KRISTIN EBERTS)

When responding to criminal activity, Cape Girardeau canine police officers Jeff Bourbon and Roy Rahn give the suspect two warnings before releasing their dog to apprehend the subject.

"Stop. Police canine," the officer will yell. "Come out, lay on the ground or I'm going to send the dog and the dog will bite."

A police canine is used often in response to high priority crimes, including burglaries, various alarm calls, armed robberies, serving search warrants and in tracking narcotics.

"You hate to say it, but a dog is a tool," Bourbon said. "When he can be sent in to protect someone or keep another officer from being hurt, then we're going to do that."

The outcome of each situation is dictated by the suspect and rarely ends in Bourbon or Rahn releasing the dog and the perpetrator being bitten.

In the last eight years, Bourbon and Rahn have used their dogs to track about 100 suspects, with only 15 of the arrests resulting in a dog bite.

"Out of all the bites we've had, every one of them, or most of them, probably wouldn't have happened if the suspect would have said 'I'm right here' or 'I give up,'" Bourbon said.

A Cape Girardeau man sentenced to seven years in prison in March for a 2009 domestic assault was one individual Bourbon said didn't comply with his orders to lay on the ground and stop fleeing police officers.

Bourbon was the third officer on the scene, where responders saw a female inside covered in blood. A man, later identified as Terry S. Pruitt, had beaten the woman with a broom handle and whipped her with an electrical cord while she was nude.

When Bourbon arrived, Pruitt was still refusing to let officers in the residence.

Bourbon said he and his dog Toben, now a retired canine, positioned themselves behind the home in case the suspect fled. Within minutes, Pruitt jumped out of a window and started to run from officers. As he ran, Bourbon said he made his canine announcement, but Pruitt didn't comply.

"He ran straight toward me and basically, I just stepped out of the way and the dog automatically just bit him," Bourbon said. "He bit him on the back of the leg. If someone is aggressive toward us, and [the dog believes] someone is going to harm us, it's just a natural instinct to protect the pack leader, which is what they think of us as."

Although the dog eventually forced Pruitt to the ground, he kept attempting to stand up, forcing Bourbon to have to jump on his back.

Even as the dog maintained a good grip on his leg, Pruitt refused to allow Bourbon to handcuff him and was Tasered by another officer on scene. After he was handcuffed, Bourbon released the dog.

"If Mr. Pruitt would have came out and laid on the ground, he would have never gotten bit," Bourbon said. "He dictated the outcome by running at me and refusing to stop and get on the ground when I told him to."

In a 2008 armed robbery incident, Sean Kevin Poole also refused to surrender to police and was bitten by Toben.

Poole, who was sentenced in the case in July 2008, approached a woman on Broadway, said he had a knife and stole the woman's purse. It was reported to the police immediately, and Bourbon and his canine were called to track the suspect.

Bourbon said he and Toben found Poole digging through the purse in an alley behind Mollie's Cafe and Bar. He continued to flee, and Toben tracked Poole to some bushes at a home near the Common Pleas Courthouse. Bourbon gave his warning and allowed Poole time to surrender, but still had to release the dog.

"At that point in time, it's safer for us to send the dog in and let the dog handle the situation than it is for officers to go hands-on and take the possibility of getting stabbed, shot or hurt," Bourbon said.

Poole grabbed Toben by the throat and punched him, forcing Bourbon to step in. Although Toben did not suffer serious injuries, Poole was still charged with assault on a police animal, a misdemeanor. He served 15 days for the crime.

After filing the charge against Poole, Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said it was the first assault on a police dog case his office had seen. The Missouri statute making assault on a law enforcement canine a crime was established in 1999.

"Most people are too smart to try to fight a German shepherd," Swingle said. "I'm glad it doesn't happen more often."

Although police canines are exempt from certain Missouri statutes, allowing them to bite another animal or human as part of their official duty, Bourbon said the department follows strict standards to have a justifiable canine bite.

They measure the necessity of a bite by the severity of the crime, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to law enforcement or residents in a community and if the suspect is fleeing or resisting arrest.

"If we don't have one, we don't have the other two," Bourbon said. "When it comes to dog bites, there's no hindsight ... you have to take each case individually, and we have to make split second decisions."

Because Toben retired in January, Bourbon is currently training Schupo, a 14-month-old black and tan German shepherd. He said Schupo is half-way through the eight-week training session and is doing well.

While the training involves aggression work and handler protection, last week Bourbon and Schupo practiced tracking and scent discrimination.

During scent discrimination training, the dog is given a command to locate a person and follow a trail. Mid-search another person walks the trail, leaving a second scent for the dog, who must distinguish between the two.

"The dog is worth its weight in gold because of the senses," Rahn said. "The sensitivity of their noses makes them very important for narcotics cases. It's an added officer on the street, a protective measure, a tool."

ehevern@semissourian.com

388-3635

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