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Biting Back

To a casual passerby, the sight of Phillip and Doris Samarco probing and poking through the grass of their neighbor's front yard on a summer afternoon might have seemed a familiar suburban tableau: a retired middle-class couple in West Boca Raton retracing steps in search of a lost set of car keys or possibly a contact lens.

The Samarcos weren't looking for their car keys. Or an earring, a lottery ticket, or a cuff link. They were looking for the missing piece of their son's left leg.

They didn't find it. All they found on that day in July 1995 was a few empty syringes and a dirty bandage -- the usual detritus left behind by paramedics who, having stabilized the victim of a serious wound, are in too much of a hurry to clean up the mess. The object of the Samarcos' search, an oblong three-ounce chunk of their son's left calf muscle, had disappeared. Phillip Samarco thinks he knows what happened to it: "The damn dog ate it. The damn dog ate the damn meat."

The dog he's referring to is a 100-pound German shepherd police dog named Faero. The day Faero bit Rusty Samarco's leg, tearing out a piece of it in the process, the dog was fulfilling his given role in law enforcement: finding and apprehending a hidden person suspected of committing a felony.

In Samarco's case, though, the crime for which he was apprehended by Faero turned out not to be a felony after all. Samarco eventually pleaded guilty to simple assault, a second-degree misdemeanor, for which he was placed on probation. Having already lost many of the leg nerves that control vertical movement of his left foot, Samarco considered the court-imposed sentence so superfluous as to seem almost sarcastic.

Now he's trying to rewrite the punch line. Toward that end he's filed suit against Palm Beach County and retained a nationally known civil-rights lawyer to back his claim that the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office (PBSO) used excessive force in arresting him. The county, through its attorney, vehemently denies the charge and vows to take the matter to a jury. The result could well become a test case over how law-enforcement agencies use police dogs.

"To see your kid get bitten alive, I'd like to get that dog myself and break his neck," says Phillip Samarco. "I don't know how they can let a dog maim somebody for life and say it's right."

The family members and their lawyer have announced their intention to use the lawsuit as a lever to force changes in the canine search methods of the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office -- and possibly around the country. "One of these days, there's going to be a tragedy, because dogs don't distinguish between adults and kids," Green says.

In some ways Rusty Samarco, a 34-year-old man who's never held a steady job, who's never learned to read or write, and whose mother still refers to him as "my little hyper baby," has no more understanding of his actions than a child. Over the years he's become familiar with the inside of several area jails, he says, adding that "somehow I always ended up taking a beating" during the arrest. His father has more insight: "That's what he does. He gets a couple drinks, starts fighting, then when they try to stop him, he fights the police officers. So they claim he's a police beater."

At the moment Rusty Samarco is in the North Florida Reception Center in Lake Butler for violating his probation; last year he was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol and carrying a concealed weapon.

In the 1995 incident, Samarco was bitten and captured during what is known as a perimeter search. In this sort of search, a fleeing suspect is not directly chased; instead he's bottled up inside a building, park, wood, or neighborhood by officers placed at strategic locations around the perimeter. When surrounded he's tracked down by a dog.

In Samarco's case, the perimeter comprised the small, self-contained housing development where his parents live just north of the Hillsboro Canal. It didn't take Faero long to find Samarco, who wasn't exactly well hidden -- just half-burrowed under some wood chips behind a bush in a neighbor's front yard.

As soon as he'd seen the squad cars tearing along the road in front of his parents' house, he knew why they were there. "I knew that for a fact," he says. "They were coming for me."

At that very moment, in fact, he had been on a pay phone at a nearby community swimming pool trying to get hold of a buddy with police contacts "to see if I could square this situation out." But when he saw the cars pulling up, he figured it was too late.  

First he ran around the back of his parent's house. Then he doubled back around a line of houses along the border of the Hillsboro Canal. Thinking about swimming across, he jumped in the canal but then for some reason climbed back out.

Panicking by this point, he ran around the neighborhood more or less at random, finally ending up half-buried under the wood chips. "You know, when you got five cop cars looking for you and the helicopter, it gets kind of nerve-racking," he says.

It was there that Faero caught him. Samarco recalls the dog sniffing him once before the bite. "I was screaming," he recalls. "I was yelling at them to get this dog off me. He was chewing me alive." He tried to fight back, threatening to kill the dog if the handler didn't pull him off.

By this time, Phillip Samarco had run down the street to the scene of the arrest, violating deputies' orders to stay inside. "I said, 'You be careful the way you handle that kid; I'm getting very nervous.' Somebody, I think he was a sergeant, said, 'Just don't worry about it, we'll take care of it.' [Rusty] was lying on the ground with a shotgun on the back of his head. The kid was in agony. He was in shock too."

As far as the sheriff's office is concerned, the arrest of Rusty Samarco was the successful culmination of a well-organized search for a felony suspect, no more. "They did absolutely nothing wrong," says Fred Gelston, the county's lawyer in the case.

Neither Gelston nor any of the deputies on the scene will talk directly about the facts of the Samarco arrest for fear of tainting the coming trial. But officers' depositions in the case paint a picture of a perimeter search conducted according to the established rules: a dog searching on a leash, two warnings given, and a hidden suspect apprehended with a single bite.

Christensen's supervisors back him to the hilt. "The reality of it is: police work is a violent job and a dangerous job," says PBSO Sgt. Bobby Anderson. "The thing you've always got to realize is that the suspect is always in control" of the level of force used in an arrest.

Police officers are required to use the minimal degree of force necessary to make an arrest. The officers claim it's the suspect who dictates what level of force is necessary. If a suspect actively resists arrest by throwing punches, then the officer can use a baton or tear gas. Hiding from police is a form of active resistance that calls for the use of force, such as a dog.

But even when a dog is used to make an apprehension, the level of force must be tailored to the level of resistance. That's why Sgt. Dave Wheeler of the Fort Lauderdale police canine unit says that "the goal is one bite per apprehension." When a dog is used, it should just bite and hold, not keep biting. The goal is to control the suspect. "The ideal is the dogs go in and they grab and they hold. But sometimes the suspect doesn't cooperate. My dog Axel has been beaten with a tire iron. Then they may spit that arm and take you in the leg." Wheeler recalls cases of dogs being stabbed with screwdrivers, being subjected to eye-gougings, and having pieces of their ears bitten off.

In the last two years, a pair of local police dogs have even been killed. In June a North Lauderdale police dog was drowned by a suspect who had jumped into a canal, and in October a Hollywood police dog was shot to death by a fleeing suspect who, in the immediate aftermath, was himself killed in a hail of gunfire.

When suspects fight back, the bite is worse. "The only offensive tool a dog has is his mouth." Wheeler says. They're not trained to retreat because the aggressive instinct is considered paramount to the safety of dog and handler.

The thought of criminals like Samarco complaining about getting hurt during arrests is "ridiculous," snorts Sgt. Terry Marvin of the PBSO canine unit. "Why don't people quit running around with felony warrants? Then they won't have to worry about being dog-bit."

If Marvin and Anderson sound a bit proud in their defense of their officers, that's because they've always considered their unit more of a brotherhood. The PBSO canine unit is generally acknowledged as not only the best canine unit in South Florida but also one of the very best units in the country.

"Not just anyone can apply and get in here," Marvin asserts. Aspiring members are put through a grueling application process, one that includes interviews of family members and the scouring of service records. Upon being accepted, the new member is teamed with a new dog and the pair attend a sixteen-week training academy together as a unit.  

The most visible result of their efforts is a sagging shelf of trophies at the PBSO canine headquarters. The unit took first place in the national trials of the United States Police Canine Association in 1992, 1993, 1995, and 1996.

One member of those prize-winning teams is Scott Langill, a burly former Harley-rider whose straight-ahead style and no-nonsense attitude has earned him a reputation as one of the most streetwise officers on the canine unit.

While not commenting directly on the Samarco case, Langill feels that police have no viable alternative in situations where a suspect is hiding. Tear gas and batons are useful when officers face suspects who resist arrest, he says, but these tools can't deal with a hidden or barricaded suspect. Langills' analysis is based on his experience as a seventeen-year veteran cop working the streets of Palm Beach County.

"If you have a suspect, and you track a suspect to a certain area -- let's say a clump of bushes or a clump of trees -- and you give an order to surrender, and he doesn't do that, now what's he doing?"

Langill has the answer ready: "He's attempting to conceal himself, which puts me and everybody else in danger. Now, when he conceals himself, does he have a weapon? If I tell you to come out or a police dog will bite you, and you don't come out, what would you think?

"Do I know the guy's armed? No, I don't know that. Everybody today carries a gun. Do I go in there and take a bullet to the head when I bend down to look for him? There are all different kinds of situations and ways you can look at that."

Two distinctly different ways of looking at these situations become clear on a recent night shift under the sharp-shadowed glare of a Lake Worth streetlight. An hour earlier, during a routine traffic stop, four men jumped out of a stolen van and vanished. Now, as police cars box the perimeter, Langill's dog -- a 100-pound study of grace and power in hues of blond and black -- has located the scent.

Passing a thick stand of foliage that has grown up around a chainlink fence, the dog, whose name is Satan, lurches forward, struggling to thrust his muzzle into the depths of the thicket. At a sharp word from Langill, Satan lies down, his ears pricking in excitement and his body tense and coiled. Crouching, Langill shines his flashlight low along the ground, straining to discern the shape or shadow of a hidden human figure among the intertwined branches. He sees no one; the quarry has fled. From the strength of the dog's reaction, though, he doesn't think it was more than a few minutes ago. The trail is still white-hot.

Nevertheless, Langill gets up, pulls short on Satan's leash, and takes the dog back to the car. As far as he's concerned, this search is over.

Chris Gideos is dumbfounded. Gideos, a Lake Worth police officer, has been tagging along to provide backup firepower as well as a communication link to another canine team, this one a Lake Worth unit, also involved in the manhunt. Although this is technically a Lake Worth operation, Gideos can't believe that Langill is bailing out on a hot scent. He wants to know what's going on. In a testy, derisive tone, Langill tells Gideos that this operation reeks of a potential civil-rights lawsuit.

"Listen," he says. "You don't have a description of the driver, who's the only one you can charge. You know as well as I do that your dog's strong, and Satan is v-e-r-y strong. When he hits a scent, buddy, he pulls me dead out of my fuckin' boots. Whether I can hold him or not prior to him biting this guy..." He shrugs doubtfully.

What Langill is saying is that he's worried the dog might end up biting somebody who wasn't behind the wheel of the car and so didn't commit a crime of any sort. If that happens, "Now I've torn a chunk out of this dude and what? -- he's been doing nothing but hiding around a bunch of bushes!" Langill shouts. "You know what I'm saying. You can't do that."

Gideos, himself a former canine officer, doesn't take to being lectured, and he fires right back. "You could -- you could find him without biting him," he retorts, and soon a full-blown argument is raging in the middle of this suburban street.  

"No, no, no! Hang on a second now," Langill shouts. "If I go up... and I walk around the corner and my dog pulls me out of my fuckin' boots and nukes the guy."

"On a six-foot lead?"
"No, no, no, I'm not on no six-foot lead. You don't do a search on a six-foot lead."

"You barely had him off six-foot in your search [just now]."
With exaggerated slowness, as if speaking to a child or an imbecile, Langill explains, "Yeah, that's because I'm ho-olding him ba-a-ck. I'm holding him back. What if he goes around the corner and bites somebody? Who's going to buy that fucking farm? Me."

Disgusted by such faint-heartedness, Gideos retorts, "Ah, you can't worry about liability. I've got 250 apprehensions, 20 bites, and no lawsuits. Not one. In five years."

Turning to a bystander, Gideos explains something about canine work: "What we're looking for is an alert to give us a direction to the problem. He's worried about an accidental bite. What I'm saying is, when I was in canine, I didn't worry about accidental bites."

At this Langill snickers, an evil sound that gives Gideos pause. "Are you with a newspaper?" Gideos asks the bystander, and then sighs. "Oh well, we can't chase anybody anymore. We can't search for anybody anymore. What can we do?"

"Listen," Langill soothes, "I would like to find them as much as anybody else."

But Gideos is having none of it. "We've just got a different philosophy of business. You guys have got a lot of liability. We don't. Everybody sues the sheriff's department, because they settle. Shit, I was thinking of suing them just for the hell of it, see what I could get out of them. The sheriff's office has always been conservative."

Gideos offers a recollection of what canine work used to be like. "[My dog] bit a guy in Lantana, on a signal ten [stolen car] bailout. It turned out to be an improper tag."

Exactly Langill's point. "Now if that guy was smart, he would have went and retained Mr. Jim Green." He pauses a beat, as the name sinks in. "And he'd have ate your city alive."

At the moment, however, Jim Green has a county on his plate -- Palm Beach County. Green, a veteran civil-rights lawyer with a taste for high-impact suits, took the Samarco case because he saw in it the potential for having a consequence beyond an immediate criminal court victory.

Green's penchant for impact lawsuits was established early in his career. In 1978, as a young Palm Beach County public defender, he used the murder trial of an illiterate Haitian immigrant as a means of challenging the county's decades-old method of selecting jurors. Relying on driver's-license records and voter lists denied his client a jury of his peers, since few, if any, illiterate Haitian immigrants were able to vote or take written driving tests.

Although he lost that case, Green went on to a series of nationally recognized civil-rights victories, culminating in 1985 with the striking down of a West Palm Beach ordinance requiring temporary workers (most of whom were minorities) to carry identification cards in the city. For a while the residents of West Palm found themselves in the glare of unwanted national attention after cartoonist Garry Trudeau ridiculed the ordinance in his comic strip, Doonesbury.

Now Green's goal is to force canine units in Palm Beach County -- as well as canine units around the country -- to formally recognize and institutionalize the notion that unleashing a dog is equivalent to unholstering a gun.

"At the very least, canine force should be treated as deadly force," says Green. Unless police are "searching for Hannibal Lecter, they know where he is, and they know his scent," a dog should not be used.

In practice this would mean that PBSO canine units would be forced to abandon its whole outlook on apprehensions. Currently the department trains using a method called "bite and hold," in which the dogs are trained to apprehend by biting suspects and holding on. This doesn't mean that every arrested suspect is bitten -- many give up when they hear the barking -- but when a dog is sent in to make an arrest, biting is what the dog is trained to do.

That isn't the only way that dogs can work, however. Some departments, such as the Tallahassee police, use a method called "bark and hold," in which a dog merely circles a cornered suspect, barking his head off but never closing to bite.

In the PBSO, as well as in most other law-enforcement agencies, canines rank generally in the same stratum of the use-of-force continuum as the use of a baton or tear gas, says Terry Fleck, the director of the K9 Academy for Law Enforcement Case Law Center in Lake Tahoe, California.  

Green's argument, however is that Samarco's injury was more serious than anything produced by tear gas. In fact, "dog bite" isn't really a word that can adequately describe what happened to Rusty Samarco's left calf. Consider: Of more than 700 bites by privately owned dogs reported to the Broward County Animal Care and Regulation in 1997, the most serious specific treatment described in the agency's records is "sixteen stitches."

Then consider Samarco's official medical discharge summary from Columbia Hospital, which describes how Samarco was immediately wheeled into the operating room upon being admitted for surgery to cut away masses of dead, or "necrotic," skin and muscle surrounding a "large gaping wound" in Samarco's calf.

During surgery Dr. Hyman Zelig was forced to open the back of Samarco's calf to relieve the resulting swelling. He noted that "what appeared to be the remnants of the lateral peroneal nerve, or at least branches of it, were seen in the wound." It was the loss of this nerve, which controls the foot's vertical motions, that keeps Samarco walking with a pronounced "dropped-foot" limp after two operations and a skin graft.

Whether a bitten suspect suffers a mere puncture wound or, like Samarco, a more debilitating tear in an important muscle group is a matter of luck, says Sgt. Derek Creamer of the Lee County Sheriff's Office. "It all depends on where the dog hits, really." Others say an important factor is how much resistance to the bite is put up.

If the dog hits a vulnerable piece of anatomy, however, such a bite can be fatal. In 1987, a would-be burglar hiding in a Nashville automobile showroom was killed by a police dog that had been sent in to flush him out. The man, who had been hiding under a car, was bitten in the neck.

Closer to home, a homeless woman named Laurene McLeod died in 1990 after she was bitten by a PBSO police dog that had been searching an abandoned house after a reported break-in. After the woman's family brought a lawsuit, the county settled the case for $250,000 on the opening day of trial and agreed to revise its method of conducting building searches. For example, officers now make at least two announcements using a bullhorn before using a dog in a building search.

The lawyer for the McLeod estate was Jim Green. Despite all Green's past successes, there still remains the question: What potential does a single lawsuit have of forging far-reaching change in the operations of even one canine unit? In fact, it has plenty.

The rules police canine-handlers live by every day on the street don't come from legislatures; they come from courts. Nothing in the Florida statutes, for instance, defines the circumstances under which an officer can deploy a dog to effect an arrest. These guidelines -- like all police use-of-force guidelines -- are defined by courts' and juries' rulings in cases that bubble up through state and federal court systems. Although the specific cases vary from district to district, the general movement has been the same across the country: A department anywhere that allows its dogs to bite misdemeanor suspects, for instance, is risking a lawsuit.

For example, up until 1985, the year the U.S. Supreme Court decided Tennessee v. Garner (a case known by name in every police department in the country), "you could shoot a fleeing felon," recalls Sergeant Anderson. The Tennessee v. Garner case specifically outlawed this practice, except when the officer or the public is immediately endangered. As part of their training, Anderson's troops are required to study not only this case, but a packet of cases that apply specifically to the use of police dogs.

This situation puts unique power into the hands of civil-rights lawyers who, like Green, are adept at identifying lawsuits with the potential for changing long-standing precedents. "It's like auto manufacturers," he says. "They had no incentive to make cars safe until people started suing them for damages. This is the same process."

This isn't the first time that Green has had a hand in rewriting the PBSO police-dog operations manual. In addition to the McLeod lawsuit, he was the lawyer who won the Kerr v. West Palm Beach case, which ended the practice of using police dogs in apprehending misdemeanor suspects.

Before Kerr, which was decided by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1990, canine officers didn't even need to suspect a person of a serious misdemeanor before sending a dog. "There's a state statute: loitering and prowling," says Sergeant Creamer. "If a person who looked like they were in the wrong place for that time of day or night was acting suspiciously, you could use your dog." Even shoplifters or speeders could be bitten.  

That's not the case anymore. "After Kerr, we basically rewrote our entire policy manual," says Creamer. "Now you can't bite unless there's a serious felony," such as aggravated assault. Basically, he says, there has to be a level of violence involved in the crime.

If Green succeeds in using the Samarco case as a lever to force the rewriting of the rules for canine units, at least one canine officer promises he won't be around to witness the aftermath. PBSO Dep. Mike Mercier says he'd sooner quit than see the rules tightened one more time.

Cruising down Military Trail in his squad car late on a recent Friday night, Mercier gestures to the bullhorn sitting on the passenger-side floor of his squad car. Its very presence is a testament to Green's power -- as well as being, in Mercier's opinion, an affront to good sense.

The reason it's here at all, he says, is a settlement the county made in the McLeod lawsuit. Now, before searching a building with a dog, an officer must twice announce his presence and his intention to send the dog, both times over the bullhorn.

The bullhorn comes with a strap that fits around an officer's head, because seldom does an officer have a hand free to hold a bullhorn while leaning into a darkened doorway announcing his intention to come in and search for burglars. In one hand he's holding a baton, a gun, or tear gas; in the other he's holding his dog's leash. And around his head is strapped a bullhorn. "You can imagine how cumbersome it can get," Mercier sighs.

To Langill the bullhorn apparatus is more than cumbersome; it's downright dangerous. "Whatever type of building you go in, whatever kind of business it is, the suspect can always find something to arm himself, even if it's just a knife or a pair of scissors. Letting the suspect know that I and my dog are coming to search the building, well that just allows him to arm himself, and you have to be careful. I guess it's all right for him to break into somebody's business, but it's not all right for me to come in and apprehend him."

The precise sequence of events that led up to Samarco's arrest and maiming is uncertain. "I don't think anybody really knows what was going on," says Art Schofield, an attorney assisting Green. Memories are unclear, witnesses contradict themselves and each other, and accusations abound.

What is clear is that the deputies who conducted the search had reason to believe at the time that they were dealing with a possibly dangerous suspect. Early that morning Samarco had pulled his red Plymouth Scottsdale four-by-four monster dirt-rider truck into the driveway of a west Boca Raton house where the mother of one of his friends was staying with acquaintances. He knocked on the door, and when the woman answered, he tried to convince her to leave with him.

According to the woman's deposition, Samarco tried to sell her a phony story about her son having been in an accident. She didn't believe him, she says. "That's just his way to think that I would probably get in the truck and go off with him." But she called the hospital anyway, and, after learning that they had no record of her son, asked Samarco to leave. Then she called the police.

Meanwhile, Samarco had gotten in his truck and struck two cars parked in the driveway and run over the mailbox while trying to leave.

Samarco says it was an accident caused by his haste after being confronted by two men inside the house: "two guys, one with a 410 shotgun and another with a golf club." When he got in his truck, "I floored it and it jumped, because my linkage was a little bad. I'd just been working on it, and when I went to push it into gear, I pushed it too far. It went into reverse, and I backed onto the lady's car." The woman called the police and reported that he'd tried to run over her friend.

To Jim Green, however, the important point is not the alleged crime but that PBSO had other means available to arrest Samarco. They could have used tear gas, for example. Or they could have talked to him. Instead, they used a dog that was likely to bite. "They probably could have caused less damage by shooting him in the leg until he gave up."  

Phillip Samarco thinks that losing a chunk of leg muscle is a high price to pay for a second-degree misdemeanor. "If you hurt a dog, it's a third-degree felony," he says. "It's like hurting a police officer! But that officer let the dog eat [Rusty Samarco] up! What apprehension? There were six cops looking at him, and while he was lying face down."

"It's not the money," says Phillip Samarco, pointing out that his son's attorney has already rebuffed one court-ordered attempt at mediating the dispute. (The case is set to go to trial in June.) Green says he hasn't decided how much money to ask for.

The notion that the dog may have swallowed part of his son seems somehow more disturbing to Samarco than Rusty's resulting three operations, skin graft, dropped foot, pronounced limp, or blasted prospect of ever again finding work as a construction laborer.

Phillip Samarco has no idea how much his son has racked up in hospital bills, but he knows the meter is ticking at an alarming rate: Just the first day's bill from West Boca Medical Center came to more than $1500. He doesn't know who's going to pay it; if he has his way, the county will.

Meanwhile Phillip Samarco stares at a photograph of his son's mangled leg and repeats, like a mantra that brings no peace, the words: "Couldn't find it. Looked for it. Couldn't find it.

"If they want these dogs for sniffing drugs, all right. If they want those dogs for anything else, they should have muzzles on 'em. So they're allowed to have a police dog, but they're not allowed to go around and bite people. Bite your ear off and bite your face off and tear a part of your leg out..." His voice trails off.


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