A police dog killed Joseph Pettaway. His family now fights for body cam footage of his final moments

 As the sun rose on July 8, 2018, Yvonne Pettaway-Frazier saw the stain of her brother’s blood on the pavement outside a west Montgomery home. 

Hours earlier, Joseph Pettaway lay outside the house, bleeding out from a laceration on a major artery in his leg. He’d been attacked by a Montgomery police dog, whose handler was responding to a burglary-in-progress call, and Pettaway would later die from his wounds at a hospital.

“I saw it with my own eyes: His flesh was all on the ground that morning,” Pettaway-Frazier said.

New filings in a 2019 lawsuit, originally brought against the city and Montgomery Police Department, reveal the family successfully subpoenaed body camera footage of the K-9 incident, which the Montgomery Police Department had previously refused to confirm existed to the Montgomery Advertiser. 

The family is now fighting the “confidential” designation of a portion of the footage, arguing it should be publicly entered into evidence. 

'Nobody deserves to die like that':Police K-9 killed man, family says

A federal judge has scheduled an October hearing on the matter, but this week Pettaway family attorneys filed a timeline of a portion of the camera footage.

The document alleges multiple police officers failed to provide any first aid to Pettaway in the minutes after he was attacked, carrying him to the pavement outside the home and standing around him as he bled significantly. According to the timeline, the dog handler jokes with other officers and takes cell phone photos of Pettaway before he is moved outside, as officers appear to stand around and wait for medical personnel. 

Joseph Pettaway died after a Montgomery police dog attacked him in July 2018.

“To be sure, the video recording is damning,” the plaintiff's motion to strike the confidential designation states. “However, neither the extreme odiousness and the shockingly reprehensible release of the police dog to attack Mr. Pettaway and the failure of defendants to attend to Mr. Pettaway's soon-to-be-fatal injury their dog inflicted upon him, does not entitle defendants to hide or secret the video recording of those actions and inactions.”

Montgomery is fighting the motion. City attorneys last week wrote that the video is taken out of context and, viewed without “explanation,” could lead a jury or the general public to make a decision based on “emotion.” The video footage should remain confidential because it shows "bloody and graphic images" of Pettaway, city attorneys said, in addition to containing audio of "third-party citizens" and police communications. 

“The jury would be influenced by the depiction of events that suits Plaintiff’s narrative,” city attorney Christopher East argued in a court filing, calling the plaintiff's argument "vitriolic." “Not to mention the potential of creating and/or facilitating civil unrest based on the graphic images alone. This concern, again, is clearly demonstrated in the sensationalistic but misleadingly incomplete mosaic set out in Plaintiff’s motion to strike.”

Both parties acknowledge the lawsuit is progressing amid a national reckoning with police use of force tactics following the high profile cases of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. 

Montgomery attorneys are petitioning the court to maintain confidentiality of the recording as it could "expose" MPD officers, "particularly in this time where law enforcement is squarely in the spotlight around the country."

The Pettaway family says they want answers as to why Montgomery police released a trained attack dog into a dark house when there was no indication Joseph Pettaway was armed or attempting to flee police.

“They have many ways of using things besides a dog and a gun," said Ortega Jarrett, Joseph Pettaway's niece. "They have tasers. They have stuff they can use. They could have tased him. He wasn’t armed. Why even send the dog in after him? And once the dog got him, the dog shouldn’t have been able to bite him the way that it did."

'He died alone'

Joseph Pettaway had been working at the Cresta Circle home in question for several days, his family said, at the time of the police response. On July 7, 2018, a Saturday, Pettaway had grilled out with others. He had been drinking earlier in the night, one sister said, and likely decided to sleep at the house for the night. 

The house was generally unoccupied, brother Walter Pettaway said, and in need of significant repairs. The Pettaway family matriarch, Lizzie Mae, lived just a few lots away, and the family is well known in the neighborhood. 

In an initial media release, the Montgomery Police Department said officers responded to a burglary-in-progress call at about 2:30 a.m. on July 8. MPD later said the homeowner authorized the use of a K-9 unit in the home, though the family questions why it was necessary to do so in an unoccupied home with "nothing to steal."

3809 Cresta Circle in Montgomery, Ala. on Monday July 9, 2018.

"It could have been a child in there," Walter Pettaway said. 

Police officials have never alleged Pettaway attempted to flee or resisted arrest. 

The body cam timeline submitted by Pettaway family lawyers alleges Joseph Pettaway appeared "comatose" by the time EMTs arrived to the scene. He would die soon after at a hospital, where the Pettaway family said he was temporarily designated a "John Doe," despite their attempts to locate him.

"It happened right around the corner from me. Everybody knows everybody,” another niece, Lolita Gilchrist, said. “It’s sad that we didn’t even get to see him. He died alone.”

The Pettaway family said they had difficulty getting information in the hours and days after his death, despite living just down the street. They weren't able to see his body until the day before his funeral, niece Jarrett said.

"We told the funeral home not to dress him, so we could see," Jarrett said. "I made them undress him so I could see his wounds. I still don’t understand it.” 

After Pettaway died, MPD turned the investigation over to the State Bureau of Investigation, standard procedure after a fatal use-of-force case. Both the handler and the police dog were placed on at least temporary leave during the investigation. 

In response to a 2018 Advertiser inquiry, MPD said it had no policy in place and no precedent to follow when one of its police dogs trained to apprehend suspects killed Pettaway.

Police K-9 incidents are difficult to track, experts told the Advertiser in 2018, but fatalities are exceedingly rare in the United States. Pettaway's death is believed to be the first of its kind in Montgomery.

"They stood up there and let the dog kill him," Lizzie Mae Pettaway said. "They need to pay for what they did. If someone had killed the dog, they'd have made them pay for it."

Body camera timeline

Though the fate of the actual body camera footage of the K-9 attack will be decided after an October motion hearing, Pettaway family attorneys on Tuesday filed a timeline of a 14-minute excerpt of the incident, from the start of the attack to the arrival of EMTs on scene. 

According to the document, the K-9 bit Pettaway for nearly two minutes before the handler, identified as Nicholas Barber, pulled the dog off. For the remainder of the video, Pettaway family attorneys observed "despite Mr. Pettaway’s obvious and profuse bleeding and his apparently going into shock, no policeman examines or evaluates JLP’s wound and no policeman administers any of the most basic, essential, obvious and immediately required care to stem or reduce his bleeding."

Lizzie Mae Pettaway talks about her son, Joseph Pettaway, in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. Joseph Pettaway was mauled and bled to death by a Montogmery Police dog in summer 2018.

The timeline states Pettaway was left inside the house for about four minutes while Barber speaks to another officer, who asks if they should move Pettaway outside. Barber agrees, but says he first needs to get a photograph of Pettaway. 

According to the document, an officer asked Barber if he got "a bite." Barber allegedly replied, "F--- yea."

Two policemen then carried Pettaway out of the house. Ten minutes into the video, according to the timeline, an officer says, "He's good," in reference to Pettaway. Barber allegedly replied that good is a "relative term. Let's get that clear," and said Pettaway was breathing. 

Three minutes later, EMTs arrived, according to the timeline. 

The Advertiser this week asked if Montgomery disputes or plans to challenge any of the details included in the timeline. Pettaway's death occurred during the administration of Mayor Todd Strange, who has since been replaced by Mayor Steven Reed. The city has officially been dropped as a defendant in the case, but city attorneys are representing the remaining defendants, including Barber. 

A city spokesperson said Wednesday the defendants were unable to comment on the video due to a court protective order. 

The Pettaway family hopes their suit will push for increased transparency and accountability of Montgomery Police Department practices. 

"He was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s uncle. He wasn’t just a piece of meat," Frazier-Pettaway said. "At some point, they just judge somebody by the way they look or where they hang out. They wouldn’t like to be treated like that. I don’t wish no bad luck on nobody, but you shouldn’t judge nobody on the way they look or how they dress. [You shouldn't] just stand out there and hold a conversation after letting the dog chew him like a piece of meat, watching him bleed to death."

The Advertiser this week sent several questions to MPD, including if it is departmental policy for officers to take cell phone photos of suspects on the scene, whether or not Barber is still employed by MPD and if MPD trains and/or requires officers to provide first aid to injured suspects. 

MPD refused to answer the questions, instead directing the Advertiser to file a public records request. In response to a June public records request for the body camera footage in question, the city clerk said the Advertiser would need a subpoena to get the recording. 

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