Lawsuit Against SPD Highlights OPA Concerns with Police K-9s; Inslee Extends Eviction Moratorium

1. A woman who was attacked by a Seattle Police Department dog during a training exercise in January 2020 filed a lawsuit against the city last week. While the attack was accidental, the incident is the latest in a string of missteps by SPD’s K-9 units that have put the risks of using police dogs on display—including a 2018 incident involving the same officer implicated in the new lawsuit.

On a soggy Thursday last January, Valerie Heffernan spent her break under an umbrella in a nondescript Tukwila parking lot. Earlier in the day, SPD officers had set up a training course for K-9 dogs that ran through the same parking lot—unbeknownst to Heffernan.

Around a corner from where she sat, Officer Anthony Ducre led a police dog named Jedi along the track on a long lead, losing sight of the dog when it rounded a corner. There, Jedi found Heffernan and, acting on training, immediately attacked her. When medics arrived, they brought Heffernan to Valley Medical Center to treat a serious bite wound in her thigh.

Ducre’s record as a K-9 officer has raised eyebrows among Seattle’s police oversight in the past and had already prompted changes to the department’s police dog policies.

In 2018, Ducre tried to stop a pair who he suspected of stealing a car. The duo were walking up a driveway—away from Ducre—when he stepped out of his cruiser and ordered them to turn around, threatening to release his dog if they didn’t obey. When the two didn’t respond, Ducre shouted at them to drop to the ground.

By the time they complied seconds later, it was too late: Ducre set his dog loose, and it immediately attacked them as they lay on the pavement.

OPA DirectorMyerberg also took the opportunity to recommend two changes to SPD’s policies on the use of police dogs.

In a subsequent interview with Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigators, Ducre falsely claimed the pair had attempted to “escape” arrest and posed a threat to (nonexistent) bystanders; he also claimed that he had tried to de-escalate the encounter by standing behind the door of his patrol vehicle. In a ruling released in 2019, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg determined that Ducre had, in fact, spent almost the entire 13-second interaction running towards the pair while shouting commands and threatening to release a police dog—the opposite of de-escalation.

Myerberg also questioned whether Ducre had probable cause to conduct the stop in the first place, given the shaky evidence linking the two individuals to the car theft; regardless, Myerberg noted that, according to federal case law, unleashed police dogs are only appropriate weapons when pursuing armed suspects linked to a violent crime—not suspected car thieves.

Ducre received a two-day suspension for failing to de-escalate and using force inappropriately. Myerberg also took the opportunity to recommend changes to SPD’s policies on the use of police dogs: among others, that “a fleeing subject does not, by itself, provide a justification to use a canine.”

But while investigating the first incident, Ducre’s sparked yet another OPA investigation after he released a police dog to attack another car theft suspect, who was hiding in a bush.

In that investigation, Ducre claimed that using his dog against a hidden suspect—who, he argued, could have been armed—was consistent with his training. Myerberg agreed, concluding that the K-9 unit’s commanders were to blame for training officers to use police dogs inappropriately, so Ducre could not be held responsible.

“It appears to OPA that the K-9 unit’s chain of command consistently falls back on the defense that their officers’ actions were consistent with the training provided to the unit,” he wrote. “However, if the unit is providing training that is inconsistent with law or that is resulting in out of policy uses of force, this is a significant problem.”

While SPD later adjusted its K-9 policies, a 2020 audit by Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that the department’s policy revisions included notable flaws, including ambiguity about whether officers can use police dogs at protests.

But Heffernan’s lawsuit points to additional problems in the training program for the police dogs themselves. According to the OIG audit, SPD doesn’t have a reliable, secure off-leash training area for police dogs; instead, handlers use ad hoc agreements with property owners to find places to train dogs.

Since 2015, the OPA has investigated 10 allegations of excessive force by K-9 officers involving dog bites, six of which led to discipline, re-training, or policy revision.

2. Governor Jay Inslee has extended the state’s eviction moratorium, originally set to expire at the end of this month, to September 30, giving tenants more time to get back on their feet following the pandemic and allowing counties to get eviction protections in place.

The governor’s extension prohibits landlords from evicting a tenant for rent that went unpaid between February 29, 2020 and July 31, 2021. Under the extension, landlords will not be allowed to evict tenants until a rental assistance program and an eviction resolution program is in place.

“We’re putting a bridge into place until these funds are actually available and until protections are actually up and running.”—Governor Jay Inslee

Starting August 1, renters will need to start paying their full rents again unless they have previously negotiated a payment plan with their landlord or are in the process of getting rental assistance. Landlords will be able to evict tenants for non-payment beginning August 1, but will first need to offer a repayment plan.

To prevent a wave of evictions and a sharp increase in homelessness, the legislature passed several housing bills over the last session to ease Washington out of the original moratorium, including providing rental assistance to landlords and tenants and guarantying legal representation to a tenant in eviction court (SB 5160).

“We’re putting a bridge into place until these funds are actually available and until protections are actually up and running,” Inslee said at a press conference on Thursday.

The governor’s decision comes after President Biden announced he would be extending the federal eviction moratorium another 30-days and after the city of Seattle declared it would extend its eviction moratorium to September 30.

Over the course of the pandemic, tenants have accrued more than $1.1 billion in rent debt. The state has not outlined plans to cancel rent debt, only to distribute rental assistance. So if a tenant is unable to go back to paying their full rent on top of paying back their rent debt, they may end up evicted as soon as their county gets rental assistance and begins resolution programs. Roughly 220,000 Washington households predict they won’t be able to make rent his month, according to Census data.