Photo illustration of a police dog in training. Credit: Image courtesy of majorosl

In April 2019, an Oakland police dog who’d been unleashed to chase down fleeing robbery suspects clenched his teeth around the leg of an 18-year-old Oakland resident, biting through to the bone.

In December 2020, a Vacaville police officer was captured on camera pinning a police dog on the ground and hitting it in the face during a training exercise, in a video that went viral and spurred demands that the officer lose their job.

Although 50 miles away and more than a year apart, these two high-profile cases involving local police dogs share a connection: both involve an Oakland Police Department officer named Marcell Patterson.

As a senior member of OPD’s K9 unit, Patterson has been working with police dogs since at least 2004. More recently, he helped a Netherlands-based dog-vending company called Dutch K9 Centre secure a contract to provide dogs to work in Oakland. Records show that the company now supplies the majority of OPD’s dogs. Comments left on the company’s Facebook page suggest that Patterson has some form of business relationship with Dutch K9 Centre, though the exact nature is unclear.

The list of dogs Dutch K9 Centre sent to Oakland—with Patterson’s help—includes a Belgian Malinois named Bas, whose bite attack of the 18-year-old in 2019, which lasted nearly two-and-a-half minutes, left the man needing a skin graft to repair an eight-inch wound and a three-week hospital stay. A second 18-year-old also attacked by Bas in that same incident required five staples to his scalp.

Meanwhile, Patterson started a company selling police dogs to other Northern California agencies, including Gus, the Vacaville dog in the viral video. He’s also advertised breeding his OPD K9s online, a potential conflict of interest, according to government ethics experts.

As more people across the country have become aware of the uniquely violent ways U.S. law enforcement officers interact with citizens, particularly Black Americans, the ways police departments acquire and use their equipment—from body-worn cameras to Tasers to firearms—has also gotten more scrutiny. The Oaklandside devoted months of reporting to an investigation into OPD’s use of “less-lethal” crowd-control weapons after a June 2020 protest, for instance.

But dogs can be used as weapons too, and how police departments obtain, train, and use these potentially lethal animals remains murky and surprisingly unregulated. The stories of the Gus, Bas, and other police dogs Patterson has worked with while serving with the Oakland Police Department reveal serious gaps in transparency and accountability.

It also calls into question why the Oakland Police Department continues to work with police dogs in this way at all.

Cuddly mascots, dangerous weapons

Many U.S. police agencies employ canines for police work, including sniffing out drugs and explosives and controlling crowds at protests. They sometimes double as PR-friendly mascots, appearing on department trading cards and being made to show off their skills and softer sides at school assemblies and parades.

Far fewer people see the dogs performing one of their main responsibilities: apprehending people who flee and hide from police. A recent investigation by the Marshall Project found bites by police canines can cause life-altering injuries and that many people who suffered bites were suspected of minor crimes. The investigation also found that police officers sometimes simply can’t control the dogs. Studies by other researchers suggest that Black residents are disproportionately bitten in some U.S. cities.

There’s little accountability or compensation for bite victims in Oakland and beyond. Since a landmark police accountability bill called S.B. 1421 became law in California in 2019, few departments have released information about dog bite cases that occur on the job. The city of Richmond has released 73 cases, but so far Oakland has released just the 2019 attack involving Bas.

OPD’s internal affairs investigation into that attack found that the K9 handler at the scene, Officer Matt Neff, used excessive force and that his supervisor, Sgt. Alan Leal, contributed to the injuries by telling the handler to keep Bas “on the bite.”

Oakland civil rights attorney Jim Chanin, who’s been representing plaintiffs in lawsuits against OPD since the 70s, said police dogs can be legitimately useful in situations that might pose danger to officers, such as a sweep of an abandoned building or a search for a missing person. 

“But everything else, I really question,” said Chanin. He believes police departments should “dramatically limit” the use of K9s across the board. “It runs the risk of what happened [in the Bas case],” said Chanin. 

Decades ago, Chanin was a member of the Berkeley civilian review board when it banned the use of police dogs in that city. “The history was one of the reasons we voted them down in Berkeley. We were a lot closer to the Civil Rights era where they were used for crowd control and to scare African Americans. That was a major motivating factor on what we did in Berkeley.” 

Tom Nolan, a retired Boston police lieutenant, said police dogs should not be used as weapons. He called for far greater oversight over how K9s are deployed. 

“Frequently there’s no public input, no discussion with representatives of community groups to seek direction or consent or explain the need,” said Nolan, who is now an associate professor of sociology at Emmanuel College. “It is counterproductive to community policing.”

A conflict of interest?

Patterson, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, has been with the Oakland Police Department since 1998. The Oakland Police Officer Association’s website lists Patterson as the vice president of the union and he is a member of the OPD K9 Association, a nonprofit formed in 2014 to support the needs of the department’s canine unit, including donating police dogs to OPD. He has held important roles supervising Oakland police K9 officers and helping select Oakland’s dogs. 

Over the years, records show that Oakland PD’s K9s came from multiple vendors in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere. But in 2018, Patterson found the ideal vendor.

According to an Oct. 18, 2018 memo, he vouched for a company called Dutch K9 Centre, which had supplied dogs to OPD in the past. In the memo to then-City Administrator Sabrina Landreth, Patterson, as an OPD canine unit supervisor, wrote that Dutch K9 Centre “is the only vendor who has the ability to search out and procure the specific dogs that the Department needs for compliance.”

The memo asked Landreth to waive a competitive process—which would require the city to look at bids from multiple vendors—and give a $49,999 contract to Dutch K9 Centre and its owner, Henk Verbeek, from October 2018 to October 2020.

“If this waiver is denied, the Department will not be able to find dogs that fit our policy, training, and deployment methods, which will in turn become an Officer safety issue and a possible liability to the City,” Patterson wrote. Landreth approved the request two weeks later.

Records obtained by The Oaklandside show that eight of the 10 police dogs Oakland Police now use came from Dutch K9 Centre and Verbeek.

About a year after helping Dutch K9 land a contract with the city of Oakland, records show, Patterson established his own dog-vending business. He also still had his job working with the Oakland Police Department as a K9 supervisor involved in selecting dogs for departmental use. 

A local dog breeding business called Sworn K9 Services LLC was registered with the California Secretary of State on Sept. 19, 2019, and began selling dogs to police departments in Northern California. Records indicate that the business is run by Patterson.

An invoice for the purchase of Gus, made out to Sworn K9 Services from the Vacaville Police Department, was sent to Patterson’s Vallejo home. Sacramento police purchased four dogs from the company between August 2020 and March 2021. A $9,000 check for one of the dogs was paid to “Marcell Patterson dba. Sworn K9 Services,” according to a copy obtained by The Oaklandside. 

An advertisement for Arco, a former OPD police dog that Patterson makes available as a stud to father puppies for police training. The Oaklandside has redacted telephone numbers. Credit: Sworn K9 Services

In a February episode of the Spectrum Canine Radio, a podcast that features conversations about police dog training, Patterson said he started his own business to improve the quality of canines working with Bay Area police agencies. He said he “put some dogs on quite a few departments now, and everyone seems to be happy.”

Sworn K9 Services appears to have some form of business dealing with Dutch K9 Centre. Its website promotes working with Verbeek. 

Dutch K9’s social media shows further connections to Patterson. In a 2020 post on Dutch K9’s Facebook page, someone asked if a particular dog is for sale. “Yes contact Marcell Patterson,” someone who runs Dutch K9’s account replied.

Patterson did not respond to an emailed question about his relationship with Verbeek. His LLC was formed almost a year after the Dutch vendor got a city of Oakland contract. 

City employees are not prohibited from having outside employment, but should disclose potential conflicts of interest. “The very fact that he has a company is not the issue. The question would be is by having this sole-source contract and not disclosing a relationship, is that a conflict? It could be,” said former Oakland City Administrator Dan Lindheim, who is currently a professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.

To disclose a conflict of interest, certain government employees are required to fill out a Form 700, a document that provides information about their personal financial interests to ensure they are not influencing decisions to benefit themselves. As an officer in the K9 unit, Patterson was not required under the city’s Conflict of Interest Code to disclose his personal business dealings. According to the city’s online database, Patterson has not filed such a form. 

When The Oaklandside asked about Patterson’s role in the city’s business dealings with Dutch K9 Centre and Verbeek, the city initially declined to provide answers. In a follow up, a deputy city attorney explained that Patterson has been on administrative leave from OPD since April 2021. Officials did not specify why, calling it a personnel matter. 

Sworn K9’s business status is currently suspended. A Franchise Tax Board spokesperson said the license was suspended in August 2021 for having an outstanding balance. 

Profiting from OPD dogs Arco and Tess

On the Spectrum Canine Radio podcast, Patterson explained how he first met a dog named Arco. Patterson said he and an OPD sergeant flew to Europe to meet with Verbeek and immediately saw something special in the Belgian Malinois. He said Verbeek had an opportunity to sell Arco to another buyer, and Patterson did not want to wait on OPD’s approval for fear of losing out on him. He bought the dog with his own money and donated Arco to OPD. 

“It’s hard to describe that dog,” Patterson said on the podcast. “I tell people you got to see him…The one thing that sets him apart from any other dog…is his nerve. He has bulletproof nerves and that is for me the most important thing. For me, when it comes to a police dog it’s not the bite, it’s the nerves.”

An ad for puppies bred from Patterson’s dogs Arco and Tess. The Oaklandside has redacted telephone numbers. Credit: Facebook screenshot

In September 2017, Arco and another dog named Tess became K9 dogs with the Oakland Police Department, with Patterson as their handler. In January 2019, Patterson announced that he would be breeding these two dogs together and that their litter would be available for purchase soon.  “Now taking deposits on this upcoming litter. Reserve your pup now,” it says, with contact info on how to reach Patterson.

Through Patterson’s Sworn K9 website, he also makes Arco available as a “stud,” or a dog to be used for breeding, and another flier advertises Arco’s frozen semen.

Under the Oakland Government Ethics Act and state government code, city employees are prohibited from using public resources for personal gain. For instance, a city employee running for office can’t use a city-owned computer to work on their campaign, and a city maintenance worker can’t use a city-owned truck to move furniture on the weekends. In the same vein, if Arco and Tess were the property of the city of Oakland, no employee would be allowed to profit off them. 

Tess and Arco were “retired” from OPD’s roster of K9s in April 2021, the same month Patterson was put on leave. The advertisement announcing the sale of their litter was posted while they were still actively working with the department. 

It’s unclear where Arco and Tess are today. Under state guidelines, once a dog retires, an officer can purchase the dog from their city or county for $1. In response to a question about whether the city has documentation regarding any transfer of ownership of Arco from the city to Patterson or another handler, Deputy City Attorney Tricia Shafie said the city “investigates all potential misconduct, including conflicts of interest.” She added, that “however, the city cannot comment on any specific investigations.”

Shafie gave the same response to a question about Patterson’s personal ties to Dutch K9 Centre and the fact that Patterson requested a sole-source contract with the company. 

A $12 million (unrelated) lawsuit

Patterson is also facing a lawsuit filed by the Oakland City Attorney’s Office over a crash he caused while driving his patrol car off-duty. About three months before he set up his dog selling business with the state, Patterson badly injured a woman in an off-duty crash while driving his unmarked K9 police car, causing one of the highest settlements in recent Oakland history. The city settled the case for $12 million. 

After working two overtime shifts on June 5, 2019, Patterson allegedly ran a red light at the intersection of Curtola Parkway and Lemon Street in Vallejo and t-boned a Kia Forte driven by a Vallejo resident named Terry Baker. Patterson was to blame for the collision, city attorneys concluded. 

The force of the collision left Baker in a coma for two months and caused her to suffer permanent brain injury, multiple broken bones, and other injuries needing $2.4 million in medical expenses and an estimated $8.7 million in lifelong care.

“Her body was wrecked. Totally wrecked,” said Baker’s attorney, John Burris. Burris described Baker as a working-class U.S. postal worker who can no longer drive her mail truck. “She’s a true working-class person who had a life—a good life—that nobody knew about. She just lived her life. It was as bad an accident as I’ve ever seen.” 

In approving the $12 million settlement last summer, the Oakland City Council took the step of directing City Attorney Barbara Parker to file legal action against Patterson for indemnity. 

The city filed suit in Solano County Superior Court against Patterson on Feb. 1. According to a sworn-court declaration, Patterson said he worked two overtime shifts that June day. The first was at Home Depot, where Oakland police officers are contracted to provide security. His second OT shift was at the Golden State Warriors vs. Toronto Raptors NBA Finals matchup. 

The city’s lawsuit seeks to establish that Patterson was not working for the city at the time of the crash and to hold him liable to pay the city for its losses. 

“Among other things, [Patterson] was off the clock and uncompensated for his driving, was driving his ordinary commute home, was not in uniform and had no job duties while driving,” 

Supervising Deputy City Attorney Kevin P. McLaughlin wrote. Patterson was “not in the scope of employment at the time.” McLaughlin noted the city paid in excess of $4 million to settle Baker’s claims against the city and Patterson, who was named as a defendant. 

A case management conference before Judge Christine Carringer is scheduled for May 24. Patterson’s attorney, Harry Stern, did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Dutch K9 Centre has an active contract with OPD through October 2022 under a second sole-source contract approved in October 2020. That non-competitive contract request of the City Administrator was sent by Sgt. Steve Toribio, with near-identical language as the one sent by Patterson. By then, Patterson’s Sworn K9 Services had sold Gus to Vacaville PD and three other dogs to Sacramento police. 
“No comment,” the city said when asked to explain why Toribio and not Patterson requested the second contract.

David DeBolt reported on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.