The number of cases involving the shooting of dogs by police as collateral damage in the course of their routine responsibilities seems to be hitting the headlines with disturbing frequency. As I was looking into the relevance of a blog post on the subject in response to an entirely unwarranted shooting of a dog belonging to an Iraq War vet, I noticed a post on my Facebook page with a photo of a frightened-looking Jack Russell terrier with a gun to his head and a caption that read, “Over a 9-Year Period Milwaukee Police Shot 434 Dogs. That’s One Every Week.” The image came my way via the Community Against the Hawthorne CA Police Dog Murders group. The war vet story was out of Buffalo, New York.
This is not a problem localized to a particular community or state. A little Googling on the subject brings up a list of dog shootings by police from across the country, but this is not a blog post about police misconduct. It’s about community values and the apparent fact that public policy – in this case, law enforcement policy – has not kept up with the values of a public that generally regards pets as part of the family. It’s a subject that nestles up against the belief that most people hold that shelter pets should not be killed as a method of population control. It belongs in the same policy discussion framework that led to the passage by Congress of the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act following Hurricane Katrina when thousands of Gulf Coast residents were told, sometimes at gunpoint, to leave their dogs or cats behind. The PETS Act now requires jurisdictions requesting federal disaster aid to have a plan in place for the evacuation and sheltering of household pets.
Let me be clear, I realize police officers put their lives on the line every time they respond to a crime scene, a domestic disturbance – even a routine traffic stop can go wildly wrong. Theirs is a difficult and often thankless job, and they deserve our support and respect. They don’t make the laws; they enforce the laws passed by our elected officials. However, in that critical role, they are implementing the will of the public and are answerable to the public.
I don’t believe it is the will of the public for police to treat pets in the same way they would a door that needs breaching with a battering ram. People don’t expect lethal force to be the first recourse of law enforcement in dealing with a dog, such as the off-leash Spuds MacKenzie–type puppy in Chicago who was shot twice by an officer who was ticketing a car blocking a driveway. The puppy followed his person, the owner of the car, when he approached the officer to talk about the ticket. A witness said the officer shouted at the man twice to get his dog under control and then in a matter of seconds shot twice. The incident occurred across the street from a school – not the best place to be letting off a firearm at an annoying puppy.
There are so many of these incidents that I would be belaboring the point to provide links to even a fraction of the stories and videos on the subject: family pets shot in front of children; dogs shot who were already under control and tethered on a catchpole; a small dog shot whose owner had confined it in the bathroom and who posed no conceivable threat, etc., etc. These incidents cut across all racial, ethnic and economic lines.
The problem is such that in August of 2011, the Community Oriented Policing Services of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) published a booklet for distribution to local law enforcement agencies titled “The Problem of Dog-Related Incidents and Encounters” (Ledy VanKavage, Best Friends’ lead legislative analyst and head of our pit bull initiatives, was one of the contributing authors). The booklet highlights the larger issue as follows: “In most police departments, the majority of shooting incidents involve animals, most frequently dogs. For example, nearly three-fourths of the shooting incidents in Milwaukee from January 2000–September 2002 involved shots fired at dogs, with 44 dogs killed by officers during that period. Information furnished by various California law enforcement agencies indicated that at least one-half of all intentional discharges of a firearm by an officer from 2000–2005 involved animals.” It also points out that there is no documented case of a police or peace officer dying as the result of a dog bite.
According to the American Pet Products Association, there are 78 million dogs in over 46 million American households. Given those numbers, it is not an unreasonable assumption that a given police action is likely to bring officers in contact with a dog whose owner regards it as part of the family. A shoot-first policy is just not acceptable. Every beat officer should have basic training in dog handling. Every SWAT team should have one member who is well trained in dog encounters and is equipped with appropriate tools – minimally a catchpole, possibly a net-throwing gun, or they should be accompanied by an animal control officer appropriately trained. Unless an investigative or SWAT team is resisted with lethal force, or a dog is set into some kind of attack mode by its owner, shooting a dog simply should not happen.
The DOJ booklet recommends better police training in things like dog behavior, recognizing canine body language, and on-scene canine management techniques, etc. But again, the police are empowered by our elected officials and public policy. If we want to see police practices with respect to dog encounters change, we need to effect police policy through our elected officials. A great example of this in action is the Colorado Dog Protection Act, which was signed into law earlier this year by Governor John Hickenlooper following unanimous passage by the Colorado legislature. The bill calls for mandatory police training and aims to advance safety for both dogs and police.
You can help. Talk to your civic leaders and bring this issue to their attention. Download the Department of Justice booklet and share it with your city council and chief of police.
As the country embraces the no-kill movement and the no-kill agenda as the preferred method of operation for our municipal shelter systems, it only makes sense that the same ethic should inform accepted law enforcement practices.
Best Friends Animal Society