When a San Diego police dog was killed last week by a gunman during a confrontation with officers at Mesa College, the department lost one of its own.
Not just a trained animal, but a fellow officer.
The 4½-year-old Belgian Malinois — named Sir — was mortally injured Aug. 2, when a man pointed a gun at officers at the Clairemont campus, according to the San Diego Police Department.
As Sir ran toward the gunman, an officer fired his rifle at the man, who then shot Sir. Both he and the dog died.
The incident highlights the dangers that exist — and how quickly they can escalate — when law enforcement personnel respond to calls, particularly those involving a suspect who is or may be armed with a weapon. The dangers exist not only for the humans involved, but for the canines trained to assist and intervene.
Law enforcement officials say the specially trained canines help de-escalate standoffs with dangerous suspects. In some cases, just the presence of a trained police dog can cause suspects to surrender. But it’s also a reality that the dogs are sent directly into harm’s way — sometimes with tragic results.
In an interview this week, San Diego police Chief David Nisleit acknowledged the risks and applauded the work of the dogs and their handlers.
“It doesn’t get any better than the Canine Unit,” he said.
The San Diego Police Department’s Canine Unit was created in 1994. The unit includes 33 pairs of handlers and dogs. The San Diego Police Foundation, a nonprofit that helps fund some department operations, acquires the dogs — for about $14,000 each — and donates them to the unit.
Sir is the second dog to die in the line of duty in the department since the program began.
Lt. Chris Tivanian, who oversees the unit, said handlers and dogs are often called upon to respond to confrontations with violent or potentially violent suspects who refuse to comply with commands from officers.
“A lot of times they’re forcing officers into these high, high-stakes confrontations where maybe a less-lethal tool like a Taser or a beanbag … (isn’t) a viable option because of the circumstances the officers are in,” Tivanian said. “That’s when the dogs come to help de-escalate a lot of these confrontational situations.”
He said officers will warn a suspect that if he or she doesn’t give up, a dog will go after them, and the fear of getting bitten gets them to comply in many cases, though not always right away, they said.
Chula Vista police Sgt. Joel Monreal, who heads the South Bay city’s canine unit, said some suspects “don’t care about fighting five other officers, but they don’t want to get bit by a dog.”
Recently, there was in a move in California to curtail the use of dogs in law enforcement. Assembly Bill 742 — which was shelved in late May — called for canines to be released only to respond to an imminent threat of danger or death — akin to the standard under the law for when officers can use deadly force.
Proponents of the bill said police historically have used police dogs disproportionately against communities of color.
“Enacting statewide regulations are crucial to safeguard both K9 police officers, their loyal K9 companions and the general public,” the bill’s author, Assemblymember Corey Jackson said in a statement to the Union-Tribune. “The dialogue around AB 742 offers us an opportunity to strike a balance in the deployment of police K9s.”
Tivanian said canine units are not “proactive,” meaning they don’t initiate encounters. Instead they respond to crimes, the lieutenant said.
“We don’t think (about) the race, the gender or anything else” when officers deploy dogs, the sergeant said. “It’s not part of our evaluation. We evaluate only on the crime — the fact that they are a danger to the community.”
Canine unit leaders also say dogs rarely bite suspects. In San Diego, police dogs bit suspects in less than 1 percent of all calls canine units responded to from 2018 to 2022, according to police data.
Most of the time — nearly nine times out of 10 — dogs were left in their handler’s vehicle. Of the nearly 92,700 calls canine units responded to from 2018 to 2022, handlers took out their dog from their vehicles in 10,815 instances.
Tivanian and Monreal said handlers apply a “three-prong test” established under case law to determine if a canine should be deployed: The severity of the crime, the threat a suspect poses to the public and whether they are running, hiding or fighting.
A supervisor at a scene can overrule the decision and tell the handler not to release the dog.
Some community members have questioned why departments feel it is necessary to put the dogs in harm’s way by sending them after armed suspects. Tivanian acknowledged the sentiment, but he said: “We don’t send the dogs on suicide missions. We do our best not to do that.”
Both he and Monreal said there are scenarios when it is too dangerous to release a canine, like when a suspect is holed up in a home with a gun.
“I wouldn’t send a dog inside” in a situation like that,” Monreal said.
There are other situations in which officers may choose not to release dogs.
“We do walk away from a lot of things, because what we don’t want to do is … use the dog in a way that creates a circumstance where officers have to use more force or violence,” Tivanian said. He pointed to situations in which officers would need to approach a suspect in a confined space.
Then there are situations when a dog could get killed, but officers release the dog anyway as a last resort in an attempt to avoid a situation where officers shoot a suspect, Tivanian said.
“We will send the dog, and we’re going to hope for the best for that dog,” Tivanian said. “That’s the heartbreaking reality of it.”
Even when they feel it is necessary, it is not easy for handlers to send their dogs toward danger, Tivanian said.
“When they send that dog on some of those calls, they just take a big breath, say a little prayer and they send their partner and they just hope he comes back,” he said.
Since 2019, 111 police dogs in the U.S. have died in the line of duty, with 14 deaths so far this year, including Sir, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
How they died varies. So far this year, six canines were shot, four suffered heat stroke, one was stabbed, one was injured in a car crash and one suffered a duty-related illness. Another death was categorized as “animal related.”
The largest number to die in the past five years came in 2019, when 28 police dogs died. The fewest was 21 deaths in 2021.
While the San Diego Police Department does not track attacks on canines, Tivanian said he has noticed more attacks than ever before. In response to the apparent spike, the San Diego Police Foundation acquired ballistic vests for the department’s dogs about six months ago.
Sir was wearing a vest when he was shot, but the round missed his vest, police said.
Monreal said he knows how devastating it is for a handler to lose a partner.
“The bond you have with your dog is incredible,” he said. “You spend more time with your dog than anybody in the police department, than with your family.”
Nisleit said the call he received with news of Sir’s death was “gut-wrenching.”
“It’s a teammate we just lost,” he said.
Nisleit added that police dogs become part of the handler’s family. Sir’s handler, whose name was withheld, has been with the Canine Unit for about a year and a half.
“(Sir’s) handler is married,” Nisleit said. “He’s got young kids, so they’re feeling the loss, too.”