Stafford Brister was protecting himself and his fellow officers when he sent his police dog into the driver's-side window of Johhnie Williams' car, Brister's attorney said Tuesday.
"This was a trained procedure to put a K-9 in a car to immobilize somebody who's been on a pursuit with a deadly weapon," said J. Michael McGuinness, Brister's attorney.
Brister and other officers had chased Williams' car from a DWI checkpoint at 15th and Market streets to Castle Hayne Road and 23rd Street in the early hours of Nov. 1.
Once Williams was brought to a stop, a video released Monday shows, he raised his hands. Brister then sent Kaas, his 70-pound German shepherd, through the open window.
The dog can clearly be seen biting Williams, who was later taken to New Hanover Regional Medical Center with a bite wound to his shoulder and scratches to his face.
McGuinness said the officer decided to use Kaas in part because the end of a chase represents the most dangerous time for law enforcement.
"When the officers were out of their vehicles essentially converging, that's when it's super risky," McGuinness said. "Because at that point, if he tries to get away again you really have got absolute immediate risk of death."
During the 13-minute chase, Williams stopped his vehicle and started it up again several times.
A New Hanover County grand jury on Monday elected not to indict Brister on a misdemeanor charge of assault inflicting serious injury.
An internal WPD investigation into Brister's conduct continues, though. Police Chief Ralph Evangelous said Wednesday that investigation is likely to be completed by the middle of next week.
McGuinness called for Evangelous to bring in an outside expert because WPD's K-9 unit is relatively small and the field is specialized.
"We hope that the department may consider input from somebody whose objective may be not associated with the police department when it might come to analysis of the particulars of the use of the K-9 because it's a very specialized field," McGuinness said, adding he had not contacted the police department with that request.
Evangelous refused to comment Wednesday about whether an outside expert would be brought in or had been considered, citing the ongoing investigation.
Michael Johnson, president of the American Police Canine Association, had seen the video Wednesday but declined to comment about whether Brister's actions seemed justified, citing the ongoing investigation.
"There are circumstances when the deployment of a police K-9 into a vehicle is warranted. ... Then it goes down to officer discretion," Johnson said. "I was not there during the incident."
The case has attracted attention from across the country, including a segment on CNN. McGuinness, Brister's attorney, is worried about how the coverage and the clip of Kaas entering the vehicle could affect the public's perceptions of the case.
"What I do worry about is someone seeing only the clip with the deployment of Kaas without an understanding, an appreciation for when it started back at the checkpoint," he said. "... When one looks at the totality of that, Mr. Williams was sending one hell of a message."
Johnson added that he personally knows Brister, who is an accredited master trainer with the association.
"He's very committed to being a police officer and he has vast dog knowledge and training," Johnson said.
Williams, who was wanted on charges in Georgia at the time of the pursuit, has been charged with speeding to elude arrest, misdemeanor reckless driving to endanger and three counts of assault with a deadly weapon on a government official.
At the beginning of the chase, according to court documents, Williams nearly struck an officer who had been in front of his car. Williams also intentionally side-swiped a police car, intentionally rammed another police car and drove the wrong way on 16th Street, according to the documents.
McGuinness, Brister's attorney, said Williams was lucky not to have suffered more serious injuries considering the nature of the chase.
"This was a gentleman that was paying no respect to the law and the lives of citizens, police officers, what have you," he said. "And even though they were entitled to kill him, Officer Brister and others did not employ deadly force. Consistent with his training, he did something different."
An ACLU of North Carolina spokesman declined to comment about the incident Wednesday. Earlier in the day, a tweet from ACLU-NC's account read, in part, "Wilmington officer lets police dog attack North Carolina man as he tries to surrender."
Copyright 2013 - Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service