Police Dogs and Anti-Black Violence

Protest observer (Walter Gadsden, 17) in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, on 3 May 1963, being attacked by police dogs during a civil rights protest. (Bill Hudson/AP)

On July 11, 2017, a video circulated throughout social media depicting the San Diego police deploying a canine against an unarmed suspect. Posted by a bystander named Angel Nunez, it revealed a large police dog lacerating a Black man’s arm while he was handcuffed and subdued on the pavement. The officers appeared to lose control of the animal, while the man screamed in agony as the dog ripped his flesh. Since the video did not reveal the events leading up to the attack, some viewers suspected the man surely antagonized the animal. Shortly after the original post, however, Nunez provided a second video depicting the preceding events. It revealed no premise for the dog’s attack. The suspect appeared to simply hold his arms in a defensive posture as the dog lunged and tackled him to the pavement.

The image triggered various reactions throughout social media. Though skeptics attempted to explain the procedure, and deny its racial overtones, many believed it manifested yet another example of police brutality. Though police shootings and violent beatings typically dominate mainstream perceptions of police violence, the use of canines to subdue people of color has a deeply racist history that not only engulfs the United States, but much of the western hemisphere.

Scholars note that European colonists brought dogs to the Americas and used them as tools for intimidation and violence against indigenous populations, but the deliberately racialized breeding of canines occurred during the expansion of Black chattel slavery. As slave rebellions erupted throughout the western hemisphere in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a breed called the “Cuban bloodhound” was diffused throughout the slaveholding colonies. Named for the island from which they hailed, they were physically imposing and extremely aggressive. Used in Cuba to confine slaves to the plantations, they were eventually exported to quell Black revolts. The British used them against the Jamaican Maroons in the late eighteenth century and the French engaged their services during the Haitian Revolution in the early nineteenth century.

A few decades later, the US government was engrossed in a lengthy conflict with the Black Seminole Indians in Florida, and military officials followed the French and British examples by importing Cuban bloodhounds to help crush the revolt. Following this event, entrepreneurial white southerners interbred the dogs with local breeds, birthing the occupation of professional slave hunting in the antebellum South.1

Cuban Mastiff

The targeting of enslaved men and women was so pervasive that Black authors called them “Negro Dogs,” as the fugitive comprised the most lucrative target for the dogs’ owners. These animals held a prominent legacy in the testimonies of former slaves, as their oral histories recollected stories of pursuit, evasion, and, oftentimes violent, capture. The assault on Black people was so widespread that a reader gains a sense of its normalcy in the literature. According to one former slave from Mississippi, “Some folks treated the slaves mighty bad, put nigger dogs on ‘em” Far from a haphazard practice, the business of hunting Black bodies was ritualized throughout the South.

Emancipation brought little relief. The legal subversion of Black Americans continued after the Civil War and the backbreaking requirements of southern agricultural labor during the Jim Crow period largely mirrored its antebellum predecessor. One 1903 headline entitled, “Slavery in Alabama,” accused southern sharecroppers of developing a system of neo-slavery by preying upon impoverished African Americans who remained in perpetual debt: “Planters in want of labor…paid the fines and took the negroes into slavery, ostensibly to ‘work out’ their fines.”2 Such economic exploitation perpetuated debt bondage that mirrored antebellum slavery, and the report detailed how the workers were treated with “great severity” and received whippings for disobedience. Upon any attempt to abscond from the plantation “they were hunted down in the old slavery day’s fashion with bloodhounds.”3

Being “hunted down” with bloodhounds became a familiar experience for Black fugitives, but canine violence was also used to dismantle peaceful protests in the 1960s. Though the “Dogs of Birmingham” often dominate images of violence during the Civil Rights era, the practice spanned much of the Deep South. In 1963, the New York Times reported that police in Greenwood, Mississippi, a city notorious for its violence against Civil Rights workers, used canines to perpetuate anti-Black oppression. James Farmer, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, condemned the attack of a Black minister by police dogs, declaring, “When that dog’s fangs sank to the ankle of the young minister…they also sank into the hearts of the Negroes of Greenwood.”4 By the time of the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, canine units had threatened and intimidated Black protestors throughout the South.

“The author caught by the bloodhounds.” Illustration from Narrative William W. Brown: An American Slave (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

Despite the public’s outcry against southern police tactics, the violent images of dogs attacking Black victims did little to curb the persistence of this practice throughout the United States. Though police departments assumed that “many lessons were learned since Birmingham,” largely through better training approaches for handlers and their canines, modern statistics remain quite troubling when viewed through a racial context.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is one of the worst repeat offenders. Throughout the 1980s, African Americans leveled complaints that officers jokingly called Black suspects “dog biscuits” as they deployed canines against them. The issue came to a head during the 1991 class action suit Lawson v. Gates, which spotlighted the LAPD’s unlawful use of canines as vehicles of terror and intimidation against minority communities. Evidence was especially damning, and the plaintiff’s attorneys were able to prove the LAPD deployed dogs principally in African-American and Latino communities, even though “crimes for which dogs are used occur at equal if not greater rates in communities with substantially higher Caucasian populations.” The case was settled with a monetary payment to 54 plaintiffs, and that the LAPD would institute reform measures for how officers deployed canines. Law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles would later celebrate these reforms throughout the 1990s, claiming bite ratios were markedly down from previous years. However, recent data from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) provides a vastly different picture.

A recent study from the LASD revealed that canine bites in the Los Angeles area were leveled solely against people of color for the first six months of 2013, and the bite ratios against Blacks and Latinos remain disproportionately high. But these contemporary problems do not lie solely in southern California. Following the killing of Michael Brown in 2014, the Department of Justice (DOJ) uncovered that police units in Ferguson, Missouri, persistently used dogs to attack Black suspects, including teenagers. Ultimately, the DOJ report concluded that Ferguson police “appear to use canines not to counter a physical threat but to inflict punishment.”

Including animals in the histories of racial violence, in both colonial histories and the African American experience, contextualizes how conceptions of race are made, consolidated, and reimagined by human populations. We must realize that enactments of police brutality are not solely human-to-human phenomena, but such state-sanctioned patterns of violence are deeply rooted in American history.

  1.  James W. Covington, “Cuban Bloodhounds and the Seminoles,” Florida Historical Quarterly 33 (Oct. 1954): 111-119; John Campbell, “The Seminoles, the ‘Bloodhound War,’ and Abolitionism, 1796-1865,” The Journal of Southern History 72:2 (May 2006): 259-302.
  2.  “Slavery in Alabama,” The Age (July 2, 1903), 3.
  3.  “Slavery in Alabama,” The Age (July 2, 1903), 3.
  4.  Murray Illson, “Cruelty in South is Laid to Police: CORE Chief says Greenwood Used Dogs on Negroes,” New York Times (Apr. 7, 1963).

Tyler Parry

Tyler Parry is an Associate Professor in African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTDParry.

Comments on “Police Dogs and Anti-Black Violence

  • Very enlightening and deeply disturbing.

    • Thanks very much reading. It is much appreciated!

  • Professor Parry is to be thanked for raising a gravely important subject. To his bibliography may be added Sara Johnson’s fine work, Fear of French Negroes, especially the chapter entitled “Canine Warfare in the Circum-Caribbean.”

    • Hi Michael West. Thanks very much for the kind words! You are absolutely right, Sara Johnson’s work is absolutely crucial. She really set the precedent for my current scholarship. I think I hyperlinked her (the “scholars” link) in the text to forward people directly to her work. Let me know if it does not work.

  • This is outstanding. We need to continue to root out the echos and hidden quotations of the enslavement system in all of our current institutions. Reading this, a great many instances from my personal past were brought to mind and I could finally articulate why they were so disturbing at the time. We cannot hear enough of this type of work. Thanks Professor Parry.

    • Thank you so much for sharing, Kent. I receive these reactions very often, and it does motivate my scholarship. Feel free to reach out and connect anytime. I’m very glad you enjoyed the piece!

  • I appreciated the long historical arc of this article. Tyler Walls’ s very recent ( 2016) article on police dogs and African Americans in – American Quarterly- is a good companion piece. I may have missed a reference to his work in the hyperlinks, but if not the article should be available through JSTOR for interested readers. Here is the cite: ” For the very Existence of Civilization: the Police Dog and Racial Terror.” In American Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 4, December, 2016: 861-882. Wall’s analysis of the ” weaponization” of the dog as part of modern policing discourse resonates powerfully with this terrific blog post.

    • Excellent reference! I am a bit embarrassed to admit this is left out of the hyperlinks (though, many works are, since these pieces are intentionally short). But it is a disservice to an excellent article. Thanks so much for listing it!

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