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City Police: Police previously sued over actions of police dog 

Since the police killing of Justin Jackson on May 6 during the Allentown man's confrontation with city officers -- including K-9 Ulf -- one fact has been missing from the media coverage:

"This dog had a pending lawsuit against it," notes Carnegie Mellon University student David Struthers.

Jackson allegedly shot Ulf May 6 when the dog was reportedly sent to subdue Jackson, when officers encountered him on Arlington Avenue after a call of "shots fired" in the area. Police allege Jackson opened fire, killing the dog before he was shot by Ulf's partner, Officer Christian Sciulli.

The federal lawsuit, filed in August, is not against the animal, of course, but against several humans, including Sciulli, and the City of Pittsburgh. It alleges excessive force in the dog's performance on Aug. 20, 2005, and calls for the city's police department "to implement [better] training and policies regarding the use of ... police dogs," as well as Taser stun guns.

Struthers was a participant in the 2005 anti-war protest in Oakland that sparked the lawsuit, although he is not a plaintiff. Then, police made six arrests, including two involving Sciulli's police dog – presumably Ulf, who had worked with Sciulli for several years prior to 2005.

One arrestee was an Ohio Township woman, plaintiff Carole Wiedmann, who was bitten in the back of the thigh as she attempted to leave the demonstration. She also has a Citizen Police Review Board complaint pending against Sciulli. The other was Struthers, who was sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk at the end of the demonstration and says he was surprised suddenly to be facing the dog, barking just three feet away, so early in police attempts to move the remaining crowd.

In the memory of those who saw the encounter -- and in the brief scene captured by an unknown videographer and posted on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjhEcn3teyM) -- Struthers' placid demeanor within a foot of the dog remains astounding. He adjusts his glasses once but mostly remains still, his expression stern but calm, a thin canvas bookbag in his lap, his upturned palms on his knees. Sciulli is inching forward, the dog halfway between his legs when it isn't straining or lunging. Struthers turns his head to stare it down until another police officer lifts him off the sidewalk by an arm.

Sciulli has ignored City Paper requests for comment several times since the incident, and police spokesperson Diane Richard did not respond to requests for police recommendations on how citizens should react when confronted by a police dog. From the YouTube clip, the officer in the 2005 incident cannot be identified, but in court proceedings that followed Sciulli testified to being the K-9 officer involved in Wiedmann's arrest on the sidewalk next to Struthers.

Although Struthers' police dog encounter was categorically different than Jackson's – Struthers wasn't armed, for one, and police never released the dog – Struthers says there were several other factors that allowed him to end his encounter without injury.

For one, Struthers says, "I've been around a lot of dogs, and trained them. I've seen police dogs being trained, at the park by my house as a kid" in southern California. "They go for the huge pads on the arms."

A doctoral candidate in history at CMU currently finishing his thesis in Los Angeles, Struthers says he hadn't meant to spend more than a few moments at the 2005 picket of Oakland's military recruiting station, called by Pittsburgh Organizing Group. But after police used a Taser and pepper spray on demonstrators in an earlier phase of the protest, which Struthers said angered him, he was determined to stay – especially since many of the protesters who remained were long-time peace activists simply holding hands along the curb.

"That was their first level of response, when they wanted to disperse the crowd, to bring the dog in," Struthers recalls of Pittsburgh police. He says he hasn't seen dogs deployed similarly at L.A. protests, nor at the many other anti-war demonstrations he has attended on both coasts, before or since.

"I was going to give them a hard time about leaving -- I still do not believe that they ever declared an unlawful assembly," he says. "But I wasn't planning on sitting there until I got arrested. ... [A]nd the next thing I know there was a dog in my face. I didn't have an option. One of the officers ... was yelling at me, 'Do you want to get arrested?' The officer in charge [of the dog] didn't have control of the animal. He wasn't a very large guy; he was being pulled all over the place. If I would have gotten up I would have gotten bitten. If I would have moved I would have gotten bitten. All I felt I could do was look at the dog and stare at it."

Of course, city police have contended publicly that those very actions might have saved Justin Jackson. Still, Struthers believes, there was one overwhelming factor that helped his police-dog encounter toward its peaceful end. "I had a confidence, when I was sitting there, with the dog coming toward me, [police] weren't just going to let the dog maul me," he concludes. "First, because there were a lot of people there. But, really, if you release dogs on people attending elite universities there's going to be a lot of people upset at that," and very publicly. "I can't imagine [Jackson] thinking that a lot of people are going to care if he gets mauled, in the world at large. It changes how you are going to react in that situation. What happened to this guy was par for the course in many Pittsburgh neighborhoods, and that's the real story, as far as I'm concerned."

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