Police dogs have bitten or snapped at more than 300 crime suspects over the last three years – and 12 innocent members of the public have also been injured, according to figures obtained by The Star.
A total of 314 suspected criminals have been bitten, grabbed at, or had their clothing mauled by dogs trying to apprehend them, The Star’s Your Right To Know campaign can reveal.
But police chiefs stressed the figures include ‘near misses’, where no-one was injured but the incident must be recorded.
Chief Insp Mark James, head of the South Yorkshire Police dog unit, said: “These figures provide only a snapshot of how many times police dogs are utilised.
“The number of times suspects are bitten, in relation to how often the dogs are used, is very low.”
South Yorkshire Police recorded eight dog ‘bite’ incidents in the first two months of this year.
Three members of the public were bitten in 2011, five in 2012 and four last year.
The force has announced plans to reduce by around 11 the number of police dogs and handlers it employs.
There are currently 35 general working dogs – mostly German Shepherds and a small number of Belgian Shepherds – plus 18 specialist spaniels or labradors trained to search for drugs, firearms, cash, explosives and blood or bodies.
None of the dogs affected by the cuts will be destroyed, and some officers are due to retire, while the rest will be redeployed into other frontline roles.
But Neil Bowles, chairman of the South Yorkshire branch of the Police Federation, said: “If you ask frontline officers what they would want as back-up at a crime scene or public order incident, they will overwhelmingly say a police dog and its handler.
“They can assist with containing areas, tracking offenders if they have left the scene. They can trace discarded property, detecting the presence of drugs, firearms, explosives, cash and bodies. In violent situations the dog can be deployed first to protect officers.
“The dog and handler are a team, and far cheaper than two officers together. They are a vital frontline resource and I think the force would be very foolish to reduce the numbers we currently have.
“Nottinghamshire Police cut their dog resources and now realise their mistake and trying to increase the numbers again.
“New York Police has taken a 17 per drop in officer numbers but doubled its canine units.”
Last month a police officer was cleared of misconduct after his dog attacked an innocent bystander as it chased a suspect.
The officer deployed his dog to search for a vandal who showered a seven-year-old boy with glass by smashing a window on Fife Street, Wincobank.
But as the dog gave chase it mistakenly attacked 39-year-old Dawn Priestly, who was hanging out her washing in neighbouring Jedburgh Street.
Chf Insp James said: “South Yorkshire Police are a nationally accredited and licensed training centre for police dogs. As such, we are required to train and monitor our dogs and those of other forces to the highest standards.
“This is under constant review and we are satisfied of the integrity of the training and the operational performance of our dogs and officers.
“Use of force is strictly monitored. Every time a suspect is bitten, they are written to afterwards and asked if they wish to submit a complaint.
“If they do submit a complaint, this is first investigated by a nominated officer and can then be referred on to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
“The use of force by our dogs is proportional, and a highly effective tool in helping to catch criminals and solve crimes. This is frequently subjected to external and independent scrutiny.
“The work of police dogs is varied, but a major part involves chasing and detaining a suspect who fails to stop for officers.
“Dogs are also used, on occasion, to disarm violent suspects, control hostile crowds, search for missing people or follow tracks on the ground.”