Sunday, February 25, 2024

The origins of canine use in law enforcement

State-sanctioned canine attacks–like those implemented by modern police canine units–were common in chattel slavery, reported The Appeal. Legal scholar Madalyn Wasilczuk speaks of how white enslavers “conceived of an enslaved person’s attempt to obtain freedom as a type of high-value property theft, appropriately recaptured with brute force.” The use of dog attacks to preserve enslavers’ economic interests was legal, and thus not a rare act committed by a few bigots. Wasilczuk explains that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 federally legalized slave patrols’ ability to seize slaves in free states, often accompanied by hunting dogs—and the act was later nicknamed “the Bloodhound Bill” as a result. Legal scholar Michael Swistara stresses that these dog attacks were intentionally gruesome. Swistara explains how, as early as the 1700s, records show enslavers “bred Cuban bloodhounds with the explicit purpose of raising them to enact violence against Black people” and “the scars of dog bites were so common that they” were physical badges of slavery, becoming “marks used to identify [Black] escapees in advertisements for rewards.”

In addition to the violence these dogs inflicted, the dogs themselves were also forced, nonconsenting partners. Swistara correctly argues that police dogs were and still are themselves subjugated under the carceral state as disposable weapons used to perpetuate racial and economic inequality. Slaveholders had to deliberately break the bond between humans and dogs, humanity’s best friend. To conscript dogs into Black people’s racial subjugation and make the animals feel animosity towards Black people, “enslavers trained dogs by forcing enslaved people to beat the dogs[…]while others arranged planned chases or commanded dogs to attack enslaved people who had been forced to secure themselves to trees.”

Furthering this divide, slaveholders would feed their dogs rich diets of meat while denying the same to enslaved people. The institution of slavery was so desperate to suppress any bonds between enslaved people and dogs that these states even made it illegal for enslaved people to have dogs, claiming dog ownership constituted weapon possession. Despite the fact that dogs had to be trained to recognize and attack Blackness as they could not detect inherent racial differences, many “white Southerners, including Thomas Jefferson, believed that Black people smelled, looked, felt, and tasted different such that their dogs could detect differences between races imperceptible to humans but objectively present.” As Wasilczuk aptly summarizes, ultimately, “in treating dogs’ perceptions of their handlers’ prejudices as innate, white Southerners employed their animals in the project of race- making and racialized subordination.” Dogs thereby became forced partners to state violence.

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