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Originally published October 29, 2013 at 6:25 PM | Page modified October 29, 2013 at 7:39 PM

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Judge won’t bar lawsuit over Lakewood police-dog bite

A federal judge says the lawsuit of a Lakewood man over a crippling police-dog bite can go forward.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A federal judge has rejected efforts to dismiss a lawsuit against the Lakewood Police Department and one of its K-9 handlers filed by a man whose leg was mangled by a police dog with a history of causing serious injuries.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton in Tacoma said there was evidence not just that the officer involved, James Syler, used excessive force in deploying his K-9 partner, Astor, to apprehend Noel Saldana after a domestic dispute in June 2010, but that the city and its Police Department may be liable as well for failing to monitor and train the dog team.

Astor has been the subject of four lawsuits in the past four years, all by individuals who suffered “slashing” injuries similar to Saldana’s, according to court records and data obtained by The Seattle Times.

Saldana’s injuries and those of another man bitten by Astor, Chad Boyles, were detailed in a Seattle Times review of five years of K-9 bite data from more than 100 cities and counties published in March. The review showed that at least 17 people claimed they were mistakenly attacked by police dogs from Western Washington law-enforcement agencies.

As a result, the agencies have paid nearly $1 million in damages, with several large claims or lawsuits — including those filed by Saldana and Boyles — pending.

Saldana admitted he was intoxicated when he went to his estranged wife’s house and forced his way in, wanting to say good night to his children. She — also a plaintiff in the lawsuit — was not hurt but called police after he left.

Saldana, 27, said he was urinating in some bushes several blocks away when he heard a “loud voice telling me to get down.”

“I did exactly as I was told,” he said, but Astor tore into his leg.

The attack lasted only a few seconds, but the animal tore out a fist-size piece of his calf, rending ligaments and gristle, Saldana said in an interview. Saldana said the sound was “like tearing a chicken into pieces.”

Saldana has said the officer repeatedly told the dog, “Get him, boy! Get him, boy!”

Saldana was arrested on charges of felony burglary and was booked into jail after he got out of the hospital but was never charged with a crime.

Syler and Astor were still working as a K-9 team for the Lakewood police in March when The Times published the story on dog bites. The department spokesman did not return a telephone call Tuesday to update his status.

The lawsuit says Saldana was permanently disabled by the attack. He was hospitalized for 10 days, has undergone three surgeries and now walks with a limp, according to court documents.

His surgeon, in a deposition, said he has treated more than 500 bite wounds and that Saldana’s were among the worst he had encountered from any animal, including a bear attack.

In arguing for the case to go to trial, Saldana’s lawyers said Lakewood had been put on notice that Astor had inflicted serious tearing and slashing injuries that were inconsistent with the “bite and hold” training used by Lakewood and most other U.S. law-enforcement agencies.

In seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed, Lakewood underscored the extensive training that Syler and Astor have completed — Syler is an assistant trainer for the Washington State Police Canine Association — and that every time the dog was used to apprehend a suspect, a report was written and reviewed by Syler’s supervisors.

Judge Leighton, in his ruling, said the evidence presented by Saldana could allow a jury to find the city violated Saldana’s constitutional protection against unreasonable seizure by failing to track the dog’s behavior or do anything about it. Moreover, the decision to deploy the dog against an intoxicated and apparently unarmed man could be determined by a jury to be unreasonable, the judge said.

Mike Carter: or 206-464-3706. Twitter: @stimesmcarter.

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