Police dog bites partially blind man in church hostel, prompting lawsuit
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WREG) — A legally blind man said he had no verbal warning when a police dog burst into his kitchen in a church hostel in Memphis, Tennessee, and left him with multiple bite wounds and a bruised tailbone.
Now, he’s suing the city.
According to Memphis Police Department body camera footage, it appears officers don’t blame him.
“It looks really bad on us. We didn’t intend to sic a dog on some guy, make him a f-ing snack,” one officer says on his body camera.
Kyle Maxwell lives in the hostel at First Congregational Church in Cooper-Young, Tennessee. He said he is blind in one eye and has only 10% vision in the other.
The hostel is in one of the three buildings on-site at the church that are connected by a keypad.
On a night in January 2021, church staff called 911 about two men who were spotted on a security camera breaking into a building at the church.
Staff had warned officers about a man staying in an apartment above the sanctuary. Maxwell lived in the hostel, which is in a separate building to the north.
Body camera video shows the officers entering the building with a K-9 unit and announcing themselves.
“Come out here. We’re going to release the dog. Come out!” they yell. The dog is then taken off the leash and starts to lead officers.
A few minutes into the search, they encountered the resident about whom employees had initially warned officers. He was told to stay in his room.
Officers, who were moving north, hear footsteps, then are seen outside the hostel, where they ask the dispatcher for the code to get in. Staff remained on the line with dispatch.
The staffer, who said the code is a general one that opens most of the keypad locks, later told MPD internal affairs, “I wasn’t sure where they were, and she asked me for a code.”
The officers don’t announce themselves when they enter the hostel, and Maxwell says he had no idea what was going on. He said he didn’t know MPD was in the church nor did he hear them enter the hostel. He was in the kitchen area at the time.
“I was oblivious to everything that was happening,” Maxwell said. “I’m sure I was listening to a podcast.”
The body camera video shows the door open, then the dog jumps on Maxwell and he falls to the ground, repeatedly screaming, “Who is this!”
“I didn’t know what was going on. I just know several men are holding me down and a dog was biting me,” he said.
Officers told him to relax and asked him what he was doing there. Maxwell told officers he lived there.
“I was terrified. I thought I was going to die,” he said.
Maxwell is then handcuffed as another tenant hears the commotion.
Police then realize the man in handcuffs wasn’t who they were looking for.
Officers told internal affairs they weren’t given clear information. All they knew was that “no one was supposed to be inside the building except for one person on the third floor.”
Maxwell’s attorney Jake Brown said, “There was no reasonable basis for them to be in this part of the building in the posture they apparently were.”
He also questions why officers did not give a clear, verbal announcement when they entered the hostel after using the keypad.
According to the canine unit trainer, that’s not required. He told internal investigators an announcement “is encouraged on every building search,” but there are times you don’t want to “give your position away.” He said they’re also “encouraged” to have the dog off the leash during the search “as long as you know the building is secure.”
Dan Maxwell, a former officer and current professor at the University of New Haven, viewed the footage and internal affairs documents and likened the incident to a “perfect storm.”
“It’s almost like the perfect storm of some things that just didn’t connect,” he said. “The officers were already at a heightened state of awareness. This translates to the canine. Canines are extremely attuned to how their handlers are behaving.”
He said being better informed can help to prevent such a situation.
“Trying to get better info before everybody goes in. Better info from the complainant, better info from dispatch,” he said.
He also said more training always helps.
Internal affairs wrote up one officer for not wearing his body camera, but it’s otherwise unclear whether any other actions were taken after the incident.
“It really changed my opinion of the Memphis Police Department,” Kyle Maxwell said.
Officers never found the thieves in the building that night.
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