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Vancouver being sued over aggressive use of police dogs

Christopher Evans, 33, who was bitten by a Vancouver police dog last June after he broke a window of a city bus, shows his wound at his hotel in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver.

Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

Pivot Legal Society is suing Vancouver over the use of police dogs, saying officers are using the animals too early and too aggressively, resulting in a large number of serious injuries.

The B.C. legal advocacy organization launched the suit Thursday after losing a fight to change the way the Vancouver Police Department uses canine units. Pivot lawyer Douglas King said change is needed to reduce the number of injuries suffered from dog bites.

Vancouver accounts for nearly three-quarters of the dog-bite injuries reported by municipal police districts in the province. There have been 121 reported injuries from police dog bites in Vancouver since March, 2010, according to statistics from the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.

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Mr. King launched the suit on behalf of client Christopher Evans. Mr. Evans, 33, is seeking damages from the Vancouver Police Department after a police dog bit his leg during an arrest. He said his injuries, which required more than 100 staples to repair, caused him to lose both his job and his apartment.

"It just seems to be the worst-case scenario and the worst example of when somebody is bitten by a police dog and they don't really need to be," Mr. King said. "The consequences are so severe."

The incident, which occurred last summer, started when Mr. Evans broke the window of a bus with his skateboard. He said he was frustrated with buses that failed to stop for him and admits that it was wrong to lash out. Still, what happened when he headed home was surprising, he said.

While skateboarding down an alley, playing loud music through earbud headphones, he was bitten on the back of his calf and fell to the ground. His initial reaction was that a stray dog was attacking him. But he realized the German shepherd was a police dog when he looked back and saw an officer standing 30 or 40 feet away, he said.

"I was just so pissed off that they let this dog ruin my leg. I didn't know if my leg was wrecked permanently or what was happening to it," Mr. Evans said. "At the time it looked like a grenade went off in my pocket. Like my leg was all open everywhere."

Charged with mischief, Mr. Evans was taken to St. Paul's Hospital and treated for his injuries. The charges were later stayed by the Crown, Mr. King said.

The Vancouver police had no comment about Mr. Evans' case. Last week, the force issued a statement in response to Pivot's request for a review of police-dog policy, stating that no change is needed.

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Mr. King said he hopes the lawsuit will prompt the VPD to reconsider their earlier request to change police-dog policy, he said. This includes changing to a "bark and hold" method instead of the currently employed "bite and hold" technique. They would also like the VPD to stop using dog squads as first responders.

Approximately three-quarters of police forces across North America use the "bite and hold" method, said criminology professor David MacAlister of Simon Fraser University. He said there is a lot of debate among dog trainers over which method is best.

"A lot of police departments that are concerned about civil liability seem to be turning to the find and bark method," he said. "You know, it is almost surprising that there aren't more civil suits against the police." Prof. MacAlister trained and sold German shepherds to the VPD and other police departments in the past.

Mr. Evans currently lives in the Balmoral Hotel in the Downtown Eastside and works part-time as a scaffolder.

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