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Use of K-9 to take down inmate in Columbia County Jail draws criticism

In this still image from a Columbia County deputy's body camera, a law enforcement dog can be seen biting inmate Chris Bartlett. (Image: Columbia County Sheriff's Office)

Deputies in the Columbia County Jail directed a dog to bite an inmate, but the recently released body camera video is drawing criticism from community members. The sheriff is defending his deputies' actions.

The incident involving Chris Bartlett, 47, happened in early August. The body camera video begins after deputies, a canine handler and his dog were called in to help.

“In this matter, we were dealing with a highly agitated, combative male inmate who has a history of violence, restraining order violations and had recently tried to fight two of our deputies on separate occasions, and told one deputy after starting a fight in our jail, that he would be coming after him,” said Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson.

Video from the body camera worn by the K-9 handler shows him directing the dog to bark inside the jail as they walk up to Bartlett’s cell. Deputies had been trying to move Bartlett into a new cell. Dickerson said deputies tried to get Bartlett to put his hands through the food door so they could put handcuffs on him, pleaded for cooperation, but he would not comply.

“Tell him if he doesn’t come out, he’s going to get bit,” said the handler in the video.

A few seconds later, deputies opened Bartlett’s cell door.

According to a report released by the sheriff’s office from the canine handler, Ryan Dews, “As the door was opening, Bartlett threw the tote at the opening door, which was in line with my head. The tote is approximately three pounds and it is a hard plastic material.”

The dog rushed in and bit Bartlett on the right arm, dragging him to the ground, while deputies put him in handcuffs. About 20 seconds later the dog let go.

Immediately after, video from another deputy's body camera shows them bringing Bartlett outside toward medical staff to check him for injuries. Dickerson said his injuries were minor and he did not need treatment.

“I was horrified. I was shocked that they would treat a human being that way,” said Bartlett’s sister, Shawna. She did not want to share her last name.

Shawna says she did not know what happened until this week when it was published in a local newspaper.

Bartlett is known to be homeless and Shawna says he is “mentally unstable.” She said her brother was treated wrongly.

“I think there are other measures that should have been taken first, like Mace, bodily force,” said Shawna.

“Our view was to minimize the likelihood that someone from our staff, or the inmate, was going to get hurt,” said Dickerson.

He said using the canine was the best way to solve this particular problem. The ferocity seen in the video, he says, brought a quick end to the situation with minimal injuries.

“He didn't get Tasered, fall to the floor, and hit his head. We didn't go in and start a fist fight,” Dickerson said.

“I really think in that instance other things could have been done,” said Shawna. “I don’t think dogs should be used in the jail. It's one thing if people are out running on the streets, but they have nowhere to run in the jail.”

The sheriff says the dog is not assigned to the jail and they rarely use canines in the jail setting. He said it has happened five or six times ever, and they have only ever used the dog’s bark in jail. Dickerson said this was the first time a dog has been directed to bite an inmate.

Dickerson said Bartlett has been back at the jail since the incident in August. Records show Bartlett has been incarcerated 43 times since 2000. Local police and deputies are familiar with him.

Shawna is in contact with a lawyer and says she will be exploring legal action on behalf of her brother. She says her brother complained about mistreatment in the past.

Dickerson does not think they violated any local, state, or federal policy regarding use of dogs, but said they are sharing the reports and videos with the Columbia County District Attorney for review.

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