Best Friends Blog

Police shootings of dogs: A disturbing trend

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.

Francis Battista
Best Friends Animal Society

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  • Leann Dyer

    This is great. Thank You. I understand that police officer put their lives on the line everyday. But I d agree there needs to be better police training when it comes to dealing with the our pets. BUT, As A Law Officer I and I’am sure most people conciser a Law Officer a Peace Officer and a gun is not always what is needed when approaching a situation. Most times pepper spray would do the trick. If the officers truly are feared for their safety when it comes to animals perhaps they should choose a different profession. I just think they first act of defense should be heartfelt.

  • Ella

    Allow me please to give a different point of view on this topic….Our men and women in blue risk their lives each time they dress in their uniform and head out for their shift. They all willingly accept this responsibility. Due to nationwide budget cuts to public safety, officers usually no longer have the advantage of riding two to a car….Most officers are out alone and in some cases, very rural areas where back-up may be 20, 30 even 45 minutes away. I say this because everyone needs to please be aware of a rising trend in our nation….it became prolific in the 90s, perhaps earlier, certain criminal elements in our society, most notably, drug dealers, use dogs for protection and intimidation. Many think that anyone, including our officers, are less likely to confront them if they have say a pit bull restrained by a logging chain. Do I have a problem with pit bulls??? Absolutely not. I think they are magnificent creatures….Do I have a problem with police officers? Absolutely not. Do I have a problem with uneducated thugs who use and abuse animals for their own status quo, fighting them and training them to be aggressive when all they really want is to be part of a family? ABSOLUTELY YES. No one can have the perspective of a police officer unless you have been a police officer. Just like you can’t imagine what it is like to be a surgeon operating on someone who doesn’t make it, unless you have been a surgeon who lost a patient. Many officers I know have been attacked by dogs purposely released on them in order to do bodily harm so their “so-called” owners can make an escape. If these dogs are really part of the family then they should be treated as such by the owners…would you release your 3 year old to attack and distract the police while you ran?????
    I think pets are just like children…they become a product of their environment and we are ultimately responsible for how they behave.
    Don’t blame a cop for protecting himself and the public, just thank him for trying to maintain order and keeping us safe.
    And if you don’t like our country, please let me know, I will make arrangements for you to fly cargo class to Afghanistan and see how your opinions are received in that hell-hole of an existence.

  • Tricia

    I am very impressed by this article. The increase of reported lethal abuse by law enforcement has been very disturbing. Your response has put an enlightened perspective to this issue. “You cannot fix what you don’t acknowledge…” (Dr Phil). The fact is that law enforcement needs appropriate tools to guide their responses to animal encounters. This should include ordinances, training, appropriate tools, and public and owner support. (Consider the response of fireman to owner’s love of the four-legged family members – fire trucks are equipted with animal appropriate recesusitators.)

  • Anonymous

    I ride a bicycle frequently through neighborhoods with loose dogs, and not infrequently get chased, occasionally with hostile intent and occasionally by an entire pack. Pepper spray is a marvelous invention and has never failed to deter a chase or attack. It’s truly “dog manners in a can” and while it’s doubtless painful, it’s not lethal to a healthy animal and unless a dog is exceptionally dim-witted, subsequent encounters with the same animal are characterized by enough mutual respect to prevent another spraying.

    I believe our county cops carry it, and seen I’ve one of them use it on an aggressive dog, with the intended result. It’s a far better solution than using lethal force on someone’s pet.

    • rlg

      “Lethal force” should NOT be an option — especially the “first” option — at any time when it comes to dogs and/or any other animal! If you think pepper spray is “..a marvelous invention and….” why not try it out on yourself first! Put simply, we “humans” were created to care for ALL CREATION…ANIMALS were created before “humans” & we were meant to be responsible in our care of all those lovingly given to us. I have been around animals of all kinds all of my life…many many many rescues (including meeting and immediately loving one of the “insane jerk michael vick’s” dogs” as well as numerous other so-called “problem” animals. Yes…so-called “humans” should readily and willingly seek education re: animals. My Daddy taught me “gentling” which is a sane, time-consuming and highly effective manner to get to know and learn to work WITH animals! It even works with two-legged “humans”! Not ONE animal I have approached in a patient, calm, respectful manner has EVER done anything more than also hesitate yet take time to “check me out”. I’m living and breathing proof that there is NO SUCH thing as a “bad” animal. If animals are on the defensive…it’s because they were forced to deal with two-legged lunatics and they insanity.

      • fmouse

        Responsible pet owners in our area have fences to keep their dogs out of the streets, and many do. Many dogs have strong hunting instincts which include chasing and bringing down running animals, or moving bicycles, and their owners haven’t taken the time to work with them to teach them better, and these are also many of the people who don’t care to fence their yards and contain their pets.

        My alternative, in this area, would be to not ride a bicycle at all since one never knows where one will get chased and/or attacked. If I were attacked in the street by a human mugger no one would question my use of pepper spray as a deterrent. The same should apply if I’m attacked in the street by a canine mugger.

        And yes, I’ve run into my own cloud of pepper spray on occasion and it ain’t pleasant! On the other hand, I’m still here, and not blind, nor dead, as is unfortunately often the case with dogs when they encounter cops whose first line of defense is to pull out their weapon and shoot. Pepper spray isn’t painless. It’s intended to be painful, but it’s decidedly not lethal.

  • Scott Lacy

    Beautifully articulated. This is the kind of reasoned argument that we as dog owners need to put forward if we are to be taken seriously. Thank you for writing and sharing this.

  • Ann Vanderlaan

    I believe that a recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Blurring the line between police officer and soldier: The rise of the warrior cop” describes the reason for this trend very accurately.

    SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) units have proliferated across the country and today’s “civilian” police recruits are lured with YouTube videos glorifying practices similar to those used by military special forces. They learn to “clear” a
    building—that is, to remove any threats and distractions (including
    pets) and to subdue the occupants as quickly as possible

    As criminals have become more violent, civilian police forces have embraced paramilitary tactics rather than policing methods we fondly remember from TV like “Hill Street Blues”, “Homicide: Life on the Street”, or “NYPD Blue”.

  • Danielle Koffee Potts-Spratley

    Our 5 year old sons therapy dog, and a beloved member of our family was shot and killed by a police officer. No apology, just a shrug. Its disgusting, and nearly one year later we are all still heartbroken by our loss, this is NOT ok. Someone needs to get some control.

  • Christina Hansen

    Good article. Is there a petition I can sign to help bring more awareness?

  • Elaine Anderson

    There was a recent incident in our county where officers shot and killed two huskies who were supposed attacking a neighbor’s cat and then went after the owner of the cat who tried to rescue it. The dogs were loose and not under owner control. This is an extremely unfortunate incident, one of several just in the past month. Thank you for the resources mentioned to bring to our local legislative bodies to get more training for officers.

  • luvpaws

    Thank you for presenting this with a non-police-bashing opinion. It does nothing to help the animals. I know many, many officers who would and have risked their lives for animals so this is not a generalized trend. I spent 7 days just trying to get one living in a ditch to trust me…and adopted her soon after she did. I do believe in more training and other methods and I hope readers pay attention and voice their opinions. Thank you for what you do. Numerous times, on rescue sites, I’ve seen nothing more than angry, horrific cop-bashing, which led me to “unlike” their site. This does nothing for the animals. Education is key. Not hate.

  • Tara Kapcsos

    This is heartbreaking, and until now have not realized these common occurrences. We definitely need to work on getting this out and common knowledge to all.

  • Randoms

    Honestly, i would not even hesitate to protect my dog from a police officer. If he shot my dog, he would get the exact same end.

  • randomoon

    Excellent article. Thank you for bringing this to the attention of a wider audience. It’s a heartbreaking trend.