Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Police Bomb Dog Bites Handler's Son, Mother Sues TSA and Port Authority

A police officer of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was a K-9 handler of an explosives detection dog owned by the Transportation Security Administration. TSA provides bomb dogs to state and local law enforcement agencies under the National Explosives Detection Canine Team Program (NEDCTP). TSA is responsible for training the dogs and their handlers, as well as for establishing search protocols used by the Port Authority. The Port Authority is responsible for providing handlers, daily care, and kenneling of the dogs. The Port Authority has a “Local Canine Training Manual,” which specifies that safe handling and control of the dog rests with the individual handler to whom it is assigned. Handlers are to report any problems with dogs, such as a dog that growls at the handler. Handlers can also contact the TSA training office for minor behavioral and acclimation problems.

Officer Newsham was assigned a bomb detection dog named Dini trained at the Lackland Air Force Base “Dog School.” (Official picture here shows puppies that will enter Lackland’s TSA program.) Officer Newsham received an “acclimation packet” from TSA and an “ouch letter,” which provided information on how to adjust the dog to its new environment in the handler’s home. There was advice on how to avoid dog bites. Dini spent nonworking hours at Officer Newsham’s home.

Newsham began to notice Dini jumping on bags during searches, a behavior considered inappropriate and aggressive. At the Newsham’s home, the dog did not interact well with the Newshams’ pet dogs. Dini began to be aggressive towards Newsham himself. Newsham took the dog to a military veterinarian for a semi-annual exam and described the aggressive behavior, but no action was taken. There was no protocol for the veterinarian to remove the dog from an assignment. Newsham also mentioned the behavior to his NEDCTP Coordinator, who perhaps should have been concerned in part because aggressive behavior, particularly in alerting, can be dangerous with bomb dogs coming in contact with explosive materials. (Some dogs are trained to recognize both explosives and narcotics, and some trainers attempt to use different alerts with the same dog when training it to recognize different categories of odors, but there is no mention of that here.)

The evening of January 7, 2007, Newsham was watching TV and his son and the dog were in the room. The boy was putting together a puzzle and dropped a piece, which both he and the dog went for at the same time. The dog bit the boy. The boy’s mother filed a complaint against TSA as the owner of the dog, alleging negligence and violation of the New Jersey dog bite statute, seeking damages.

The TSA noted that the NEDCTP has a policy that no one should pet an assigned canine other than the handler. Further, TSA allows local law enforcement agencies to board assigned dogs in the handlers’ homes but also to put them in kennels. The court found that NEDCTP officials had not violated program requirements, and held the TSA immune from suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. 1346(b). State law claims could proceed against the Port Authority in state court, however. Newsham v. Transportation Security Administration, 2010 WL 715838 (D.N.J. 2010).

Dog bite laws have been applied to police dogs. See Hyatt v. Anoka Police Department, 691 NW2d 828 (Minn. Sup. Ct. 2005). The circumstances here, however, are rather unique and the officer may share some of the responsibility since he knew the dog was becoming aggressive. It is not clear to me that having the wife sue on behalf of the son and leaving the husband off the plaintiff list will resolve this conflict if the matter comes before another court.

It would be unfortunate if a case like this were taken as indicating that police dogs should be kenneled while off duty. There is good evidence that a dog that lives and plays with its handler will be more obedient to the handler and generally a better police dog. This appears to be more important in achieving a good relationship than a long period of working together. Lefebvre, D., Diederich, C., Delcourt, M., and Giffroy, J.-M. (2007). The Quality of the Relation Between Handler and Military Dogs Influences Efficiency and Welfare of Dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 104, 49-60.

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