By Ashley Remkus, The Associated Press
A man who spent 36 days in the hospital after a bite by a police dog nearly cost him his arm is now suing two Alabama police officers and Tuscaloosa County.
Derek Stokes underwent five surgeries after the county police dog bit him behind a Walmart in Tuscaloosa on March 5, 2021. At one point, he awoke to find himself handcuffed to the hospital bed and his injured arm medically attached to his midsection.
In his 16-page lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court in the northern district of Alabama, Stokes accuses the county K-9 deputy of excessive force, assault and battery. He argues he is permanently injured. The lawsuit accuses a Tuscaloosa city officer of deliberate indifference or failure to intervene.
Both officers are unnamed in the complaint, as Stokes’ attorneys say they do not yet know their identities.
Stokes, who is 49, lives in Columbus, Mississippi. When AL.com first reported on the case last year, Stokes said that on the day of the dog bite he drove to Tuscaloosa to shop at the nearest Sam’s Club. He said he stopped at Walmart to buy a phone card, chips and a toy for his goddaughter.
A store employee accused Stokes of shoplifting a video projector — an allegation he denies — and he ran from an off- duty city police officer and hid behind the store. The officer tried, unsuccessfully, to Tase Stokes. The lawsuit says that when a county deputy released the K-9, Stokes was already on the ground and allowing a city police officer to handcuff him.
“I didn’t resist,” Stokes told AL.com in an interview last year. “I had submitted to them.”
The lawsuit also accuses the county of deliberate indiffer- ence in training K-9 handlers.
Robert Spence, the Tuscaloosa County attorney, said he had not seen the lawsuit but told AL.com on Wednesday afternoon that the county will defend itself against the claims.
“The county doesn’t have any liability,” he said. “The county doesn’t train those officers or set the policy for the sheriff’s office.
“But the sheriff has awfully good policies,” he added, “so I don’t see it being an issue either.”
When AL.com first reported on the case last year, the sheriff’s office accused Stokes of assaulting the dog. A spokeswoman said the deputy ordered Stokes to comply multiple times before releasing the K-9.
But Stokes told AL.com he was trying to get the dog to let go of his arm when the deputy kicked him in the face and said, “don’t put your damn hands on my dog.”
After the dog bite, Stokes spent more than a month in the hospital and underwent five surgeries to save his right arm. Doctors took tissue from his belly to reconstruct a chunk of flesh the dog tore from his forearm. They grafted his right arm onto his midsection as the wound healed.
Stokes and his partner both told AL.com last year that she did not know where he was for a week and grew frantic. She said her first confirmation of where he was came when a bill arrived from a radiology company seeking payment for treatment at the hospital. A 2020 investigation by AL.com and three other news organizations found that police dog bites can cause life-altering, permanent injuries that are often inflicted on unarmed people suspected of low-level crimes, such as shop- lifting.
Police apprehension dogs are specially bred and trained to pursue and bite suspects who run or resist, sending an average of 3,600 people to emergency rooms nationwide every year. Nearly a year after the bite, Stokes has not been arrested on any charges related to the case.
During the first three weeks in the hospital, city police considered Stokes a “medical prisoner” and guarded him around the clock, Stephanie Taylor, a police spokeswoman, told AL.com last year. But the city decided that was too expensive, Taylor said, and opted to send the case to the Tuscaloosa County district attorney for a grand jury to determine whether to charge Stokes.
Martin Weinberg, one of three attorneys representing Stokes, said the city and county have not handed over any reports or video footage of what happened. Stokes still requires extensive wound care, according to the lawsuit, and will need additional reconstructive surgery. He continues to suffer from extreme emotional and physical pain and owes extensive medical bills.
“He has lost the full use and function of his right arm and may never regain it,” the lawsuit says.
Weinberg said Stokes’ family life has suffered since the bite.
“It’s had a life-altering effect on him and his family,” Weinberg said. “Close to a year out, he’s still facing a hard road. These are problems he’s always going to deal with.”
Stokes is seeking a jury trial and payment for damages, costs, attorneys’ fees and interest.