Rounds of gunfire rang out from the shooting range next to the Mesa Police Department’s K-9 training facility, shattering the calm of the torrid summer evening. The staccato bursts were a reminder that sometimes during a police standoff a dog bite can save a suspect’s life.
Officer John Lafontaine, a Mesa police service dog handler, said it’s likely that his K-9 partner, Leon, saved the life of Robert Floyd Miles, a crime suspect who police failed to subdue last month with beanbag rounds and shocks from a stun gun.
Local television stations showed footage of Leon’s takedown of Miles. Despite Miles’ body size — police estimated his weight at 350 pounds — he was unable to free himself from Leon’s toothy grasp. Police then took Miles into custody without firing a shot.
“If it wasn’t for the dog, he probably would’ve died that day,” Lafontaine said.
I met Leon the day after he tangled with Miles. As the sleek Belgian Malinois nuzzled my hand for attention, it crossed my mind that I could probably fare better than Miles had. At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, I’m not much smaller than Miles. Plus, I was a decent athlete not long ago.
After police strapped me into a thickly padded “bite suit,” I decided Leon’s bite wouldn’t be so bad.
When Lafontaine turned Leon loose, the dog sped across the yard, dripping long strings of saliva from his wide-open mouth. Then, from about five feet away, Leon leapt — his jaws snapping down on my forearm.
For the next few days, I proudly displayed an angry red welt.
Leon’s bite wasn’t bonecrushing. It was steady. He just hung there — a furry, 65-pound millstone attached to one arm.
When Lafontaine issued an order in German, Leon reluctantly let go, his tail wagging like a favorite toy was right there in front of him, just beyond his jaws.
Later, police told me to run from them before they released Rico, another police dog. By then, the heat and humidity of the monsoon had turned the bite suit into an oven.
I started to jog away from Rico, who was pawing the ground and whining to be let go. His bark grew fiercer as I lumbered away.
“Stop!” said officer Joel Anderson, Rico’s handler, addressing me as if I were a fleeing suspect. “Mesa police! Stop, or I will release my dog!”
The dog’s enthusiasm sparked in me a rush of primal fear. After all, Rico was trained to bite bad guys. And I was wearing a bite suit. In Rico’s mind, I was a bad guy.
Anderson released his dog. Now I was really trying to get away.
Rico closed the distance between us in seconds, sprang and snapped up a mouthful of my upper arm. Rico twisted as he bit down, so both his momentum and my own pulled us down.
I flipped head-over-heels and landed on my back.
Rico could’ve let go of my arm for a clear shot at my head and throat. But he didn’t go for the kill.
Police said their dogs view the whole thing as a game. The dogs aren’t vicious, police told me, they’re just driven.
Once I took off the bite suit, the dogs’ fierceness disappeared. They wanted their ears scratched and their bellies rubbed — once again man’s best friend.