In a startling example of community policing gone wrong, a drug-sniffing dog attacked a little girl after the county’s narcotics team showed up at an Arlington elementary school career day.
This was in 2017. Now, the county is paying her medical bills after the girl’s mother, Yesenia Arevalo, filed suit earlier this year. The $25,000 settlement was finalized earlier this month. Half that amount will be set aside for when the girl, Madelyn, turns 18.
Madelyn met the dog at Odeal Pearcy Elementary just over two years ago. The Dallas County Sheriff's Department sent the narcotics team to present to the students, and Deputy Jeff Payton brought his dog, Ali. After giving a presentation to a group of third graders in the morning, Payton and Ali went out to the playground.
There, a group of about six students were crowded around, petting Ali when the dog growled and lunged at Madelyn, swiping her across the face with his claws. The attack split open her lip and scratched the left side of her face, resulting in over $4,000 in medical bills after Madelyn was rushed to the hospital and seen by a plastic surgeon.
Madelyn's family claimed the attack was unprovoked, and their lawsuit asserts that Payton's "conduct, when viewed objectively, involved an extreme degree of risk.” The county, they claim, was grossly negligent.
Payton's incident report, however, describes the event differently. He wrote that Madelyn grabbed a toy out of Ali's mouth "as if she was going to take it away." Payton, who was watching the dog from a few feet away, immediately grabbed Ali and took him back to the squad car.
One of the family's attorneys, Nolan McConville, said that cases like this rarely come before the court. "This was the first time I've ever seen anything quite like this," he said.
In its response to the suit, the county argued that it was irrelevant whether Payton was negligent; the county was immune because Payton was "acting in good faith" in the scope of his duties as a police officer.
It wasn't a good defense, McConville said. "I wrote my response and pretty much got them to back down and withdraw it because their defense was just frivolous. I told them I was going to file a motion for sanction if they didn't pull their motion because it was poorly done all around — just no basis whatsoever in law."
He never filed that response. Instead, the county settled. It was for far less, however, than the upward of $100,000 that the family had original requested in damages.
The county has refused to acknowledge guilt and wrote in the settlement that "this payment is solely to buy peace."
The sheriff's department was unwilling to comment on the incident and referred questions to the county's attorneys, who did not respond before press time.
According to an outdated page on the department's website, it once had "two drug detecting Czechoslovakian german shepherds named Diuk and Daffy," each trained for 15 weeks by the Border Patrol. The unit was formed in 2008, and in its first two years, uncovered nearly $1 million in illicit drugs.
A Texas police dog trainer contacted by the Observer said that Payton violated basic training principles for K-9 handlers. "The general rule of thumb is that no one's allowed to touch your dog," he said.
The trainer, who has over 20 years of experience, requested anonymity out of fear of jeopardizing his business.
After being given the details of the case, the trainer noted that it wasn't clear whether Payton was holding the leash tightly enough to control the dog but acknowledged that appropriate techniques can vary depending on the animal.
In an article published on Officer.com in 2012, Capt. Steve Forgues, of the Harveys Lake Fire and Ambulance Company in Pennsylvania, wrote about the need for handlers to be aware and prepared for these kinds of situations.
"That 4 year old breaks free from mom or dad and comes running to hug and kiss your partner," he wrote. "If trained properly, your partner shouldn’t react to this child’s affection other than maybe giving a big wet kiss in return."
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The Texas trainer said that Ali shouldn't have been allowed to be surrounded by children. "I wouldn't put him in that situation. I probably would have one or two kids come up at once, with me right next to the dog so I can control him better."
In an affidavit, Payton claimed that Ali had never attacked anyone before, nor shown any violent inclinations. Payton and Ali had been working together for six years before the incident.
The trainer acknowledged that policies vary between police departments but said, "I would think that there would be some kind of counseling or warnings given to the officer.
"Because things like this can happen."