“Bite photos”

I wonder how many of you scrolled through this immediately looking for a graphic bite photo before reading the post – you did, didn’t you? Sorry – but I’m not posting any photos of which I will address as it would defeat the purpose of the post.

Despite over 25 years of constant and consistent warnings from attorneys that represent handlers and their agencies, instructors and people like me to K9 handlers advising them not to snap, store or share “bloody and graphic police dog bite photos,” handlers and other officers continue the ill-advised practice today of taking these photos, storing them on their phones or other personal devices, and sharing them with peers and friends outside of law enforcement. In some cases, these photos are out-of-policy and in direct violation of guidelines that prohibit such.

Here’s a standard policy; Photographs shall be taken of the bite or injury as soon as practicable after tending to the immediate needs of the injured party. Photographs shall be retained as evidence in accordance with current department evidence procedures.

The above policy is subject to interpretation and your interpretation might not be the same as mine. Does tending to the immediate needs mean a wound or bite needs to be cleaned and treated first? It doesn’t specifically read “thou shalt not take bloody photos” does it? I think it needs more specification and tighter restrictions and it must be in writing someplace to hold people accountable.

Handlers, officers, supervisors, and CSI personnel are advised not to take graphic bloody photos as these same photos may find their way in front of a jury later when the handler has been charged with excessive force and the photos might not be viewed as favorable in their defense. Also, these graphic photos do not accurately portray the wound(s) in most cases. For many years, handlers were simply told “don’t take these photos because they don’t look good and they might get you in serious trouble” but that’s not a good guideline to share if you want to put it in writing for a policy and for years I could never get anyone to provide appropriate wording.

I later crafted my own wording to address this issue to share in my canine liability classes that could be inserted into a policy or operational manual as a guideline and I commonly identify it as “The Before and After Rule”;

  • If a bite or injury requires medical attention, the subject should be treated on scene by paramedics or transported to an appropriate medical facility before photographs are taken.
  • Photographs of injuries should be taken after being medically treated and cleaned so as to accurately represent the size and true extent of any wound.

You might recall the video footage last year from the BWC on the handler that directed his dog for a bite on a suspect sitting on a couch and the dog bit the suspect in the face. As the officers were trying to take the suspect into custody on the floor and the dog had been removed from the face bite, an officer is seen taking photos of the suspect’s face with what appears to be a cell phone before the suspect and scene is secured. Not good.

One other consideration in taking these photos is the evidence factor if you are using your personal cell phone or camera. And many of you are doing so. Once you start snapping photos and storing them on your personal phone, your personal phone may not be considered your personal phone any longer because it’s now a work phone and it could be subject to discovery or seizure as evidence – for the bite photos and anything else that might be on it. I recommend you check with your attorney or legal counsel for applicable laws in your state or jurisdiction.

You might think “nobody will ever find out” and consider yourself invulnerable. Are you a big gambler and willing to roll the dice? You might think that trouble will not occur if you and others take and save these photos – unless they get discovered. I bet some CHP officers didn’t think any trouble would occur when they took photos in 2006 at a fatal accident scene and shared them – until they were sued and it cost the CHP $2.37 million as a settlement in 2012 for exploiting the CHP-acquired evidence (photos) in a case known as “the Porsche girl” that you can research further online.

“Bite photos” represents the 40th reason of the “Reasons We Get in Trouble” feature that I starting sharing periodically in 2013. I hope most of these reasons have proven to be beneficial and kept you out of trouble.

Take care, be safe and make every day a training day…
Bill Lewis II

This “Reason” was originally shared on May 25, 2016.