Coon Rapids woman, 81, bitten by police dog in her backyard

Choua Xiong, 81, is recovering being bitten by a police dog Sunday.
Choua Xiong, 81, is recovering in the hospital after she was bitten by a Coon Rapids police dog early Sunday while rummaging through her backyard shed.
Courtesy of Choua Xiong's family

The Coon Rapids police chief is characterizing an attack by one of his department's police dogs on an elderly Hmong woman as tragic but "bizarre."

Choua Xiong, 81, remains hospitalized after she was bitten by the dog early Sunday while rummaging through her backyard shed.

Police Chief Brad Wise said his officers will not be investigated, and as unfortunate as the incident was, they acted appropriately given the information they had on hand. He said he's never experienced a case like this.

"It feels like lightning, like a one-in-a-million chance," Wise said. "And I don't know how to avoid these one-in-a-million chances."

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But an attorney representing Xiong, who received puncture wounds, abrasions and bruises on her left arm, said the department should learn from the incident.

"To characterize this as something as unique or wholly unexpected is missing the larger picture and completely, in my mind, discounts the presence of the entire immigrant community in the Twin Cities," said attorney Benjamin Gallagher.

Gallagher said he is doing his own investigation into what happened.

Here's the police account:

Around 6:40 a.m. Sunday, neighbor called 911 to report an intruder in her backyard. The woman described the suspicious person as over 5-foot-tall and wearing a large black coat. Later, the neighbor sounded even more panicked and reported hearing a loud noise coming from her garage, police said.

When officers spotted someone inside the shed next door with a flashlight, they assumed it was a burglary suspect, although the report says whether a burglary occurred was "unknown." In the darkness, police believed the person in the shed was a man, Wise said. An officer can be heard on dispatch audio released by the department referring to the individual as a "he."

In fact, inside the shed was Xiong, a Hmong grandmother who does not speak English. She did not respond to commands by officers to come out.

Her grandson, WaamXee Xiong, told Channel 3 Hmong TV News that his grandmother was up early and cleaning up the shed when officers arrived. A police dog "attacked Grandma in the shed," WaamXee Xiong said. "The dog bit hard, and then let her arm go."

He said his grandmother tried to defend herself with a large rubber rope.

According to the police report, an officer shouted warnings for several minutes and received no response. Police say officers first arrived on the scene at 6:52 a.m. and released the dog at 7:05 a.m.

Officers feared that the person in the shed could have used tools to attack police, so they sent in the dog, Taz, without realizing who was inside, Wise said.

The information officers received from the 911 call seemed to square with their observations in the field, Wise said. He said they believed they were interrupting a burglary.

That an elderly woman who didn't speak English was inside the shed "didn't enter into the realm of possibility," he said.

"We're all shocked. It's sad. I'm devastated that this woman suffered a puncture wound."

Many in the Hmong American community are demanding answers. Tou Ger Bennett Xiong, who has been communicating with Xiong's family, said he wonders whether the police were properly trained to respond to a situation like this.

"To unleash a deadly weapon onto a vulnerable citizen who is within her own property is alarming," he said. "To think that our grandmothers are not safe in their own homes should concern everyone."

According to the family, Choua Xiong is experiencing complications as a result of the incident.

Gallagher said his client is deeply distressed.

"She is significantly traumatized. Her body and her mind are both reacting negatively to the trauma she sustained," he said.

He noted that some immigrants in the Twin Cities lack English skills and have little or no experience in dealing with police. "There needs to be a recognition of those issues by city officials," Gallagher said.

MPR News reporter Doualy Xaykaothao contributed to this story.