Misconceptions About “Aggressive” Breeds Play Role in Police Shootings

75-85% or more of dogs shot by police are pit bulls or pit mixes. Even the Justice Department agrees: Stereotypes about breeds are a significant factor.

Just a few of the many victims of shootings by police. To see more, click here. Photos culled from the Facebook page Dogs Shot by Police.
Just a few of the many victims of shootings by police. Photos culled from the Facebook page Dogs Shot by Police.

Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of “Gunned Down,” a special series from Pets Adviser. If you haven’t read it yet, we urge you to start with Part 1.

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One spring morning a few years ago, David Cole* got a frantic call at work from his neighbor. She described a horrific scene back home — his burglar alarm had been tripped, a police officer had shown up to investigate, and the officer then shot Cole’s dog multiple times. The neighbor was distraught; she had witnessed the whole thing.

Cole raced home to find his dog lying on the floor in a pool of blood — but still gasping for breath. Cole feverishly started CPR, but sadly this was not enough to save his pet’s life.

How could they do this? Cole thought, growing angry. My dog was not a monster.

Actually, pretty far from it. The dog had just undergone a major operation. Up until the day before the shooting, in fact, Cole had been carrying the dog outside every time the dog needed to potty. Cole’s veterinarian says the dog was essentially a quadriplegic around the time of the shooting — he could not have attacked the police officer, much less run toward him. Even worse, bullet wound analysis would later demonstrate that the dog was turned away from the officer firing at him.

In the days that followed, as Cole tried putting the pieces of this tragic puzzle back together — to try to make sense of it all — he heard another disturbing detail from his neighbor. She described overhearing a conversation between the officer and his partner, who had arrived for backup right after the shooting. The partner asked what had happened, and the officer said, “I was attacked by that pit bull, so I shot it.” The partner responded, “That’s a Rottweiler, not a pit bull, you idiot.” 

The entire incident raises quite a few unsettling questions. And that “pit bull” remark brings up one very interesting question in particular: How big of a role did stereotypes about dog breeds play in the police officer’s decision to shoot?

Shootings Often a “Knee-Jerk Reaction”

Law enforcement officers do encounter vicious dogs, so it’s understandable that they are operating from a heightened state of fear. But there’s little excuse for automatically turning to lethal force.

Nearly 40 percent of the homes that police visit have pets, so officers should be prepared to correctly assess whether a dog truly is life-threatening and vicious or simply growling and being protective.

“Our opinion is that often, lethal use of force is not required or justified,” Randall Lockwood of the Humane Society of the United States told the Los Angeles Times. Lockwood has consulted with police on handling dogs.

“In many cases, a shooting is a knee-jerk reaction by an officer not familiar with dogs,” he said. “We have to acknowledge that there are situations where they have to shoot a dog, but we feel that’s relatively rare.”

Presumed Guilty

Police officers are put in a position to protect their own safety as well as the safety of others, and they sometimes have very little time to decide if a dog is a threat. Approximately 75 to 85 percent of dogs shot by police are pit bull-type dogs, and it’s safe to assume that preconceived notions about breeds play some role.

A Kingsport, Tennessee, police officer who shot and killed a dog in 2009 was overheard remarking, “I hate pit bulls” and that he “didn’t like those damn pit bulls anyway,” according to three witnesses. The witnesses say the dog was walking up to the officer, wagging his tail.

Even the Justice Department, in its report The Problem of Dog-Related Incidents and Encounters [PDF], says one of the biggest problems contributing to shootings is:

“Officers who make judgments concerning a dog they encounter based on its presumed breed or physical appearance rather than its behavior.”

A reputation, fed by media hype, has been built up in the popular consciousness around pit bulls that portrays them as more likely to attack, more dangerous, ticking time bombs. As a result, they are a primary target of breed-specific legislation (BSL) banning or restricting them in hundreds of cities and communities. But how deserved is this reputation?

Karen Delise, founder of the National Canine Research Council and an expert on dog bite deaths, says pit bulls are currently the target of a “witch hunt” (PDF).

Although it’s true that more “pit bulls” are reported to be involved in attacks than any breed, pit bulls are also exceedingly common dogs. There are more pit bulls in the United States right now than Rottweilers, German shepherds and chows combined — but there are fewer fatal attacks by pit bulls than any of those three breeds once you factor in the attacks as a percentage of the dog population.

“There is no scientific evidence that one kind of dog is more likely to bite or injure a human being than another kind of dog,” explains the Department of Justice in its report, adding that the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says, “Dog bite statistics are not really statistics, and they do not give an accurate picture of dogs that bite.”

Pit bulls shot by police

Mislabeling Dogs

Many media outlets pile onto the “pit bulls are vicious” bandwagon. For example, vicious dogs in the news are sometimes reported as pit bulls without verification. Understand-A-Bull lists numerous examples of media reports where dogs were incorrectly labeled as pit bulls. Some media outlets updated their articles when the errors were pointed out; others simply removed the photos but left the pit bull mentions.

Not even adoption agencies can get the breed label right. A 2009 study at Western University using canine DNA analysis showed that animal professionals themselves mislabel nearly 88 percent of mixed-breed dogs.

The ideal way to label dogs involved in biting attacks isn’t by breed but by relationship: Was the dog a family pet, or was it merely a resident dog that never enjoyed a positive, compassionate relationship with humans and other dogs? Had the dog been chained up, left in the heat, abused?

Considering how difficult it is to properly identify pit bulls and all the emotionally charged media reports of “pit bulls” involved in attacks, fear is a common reaction to dogs with a block head and large jaws.

Afraid of Any Dog, Period

Of course, another problem exists when officers lack experience with any type of dog. This was made evident in David Cole’s ordeal described above.

In his reply to his partner, the shooting officer revealed that not only did he not know the breed of the dog, but he also chose to use the stereotype of a pit bull to justify his actions.

Forensic reports would later support the neighbor’s observations. The gunshots — nine in all — were fired from some distance while the dog was facing away from the officer in Cole’s fenced-in backyard.

Was the officer afraid of dogs? Had he received any training on how to deal with dogs when performing his duties? Why did he shoot a dog who was facing away from him and later claim to have been attacked?

Cole says he learned that the officer was afraid of dogs, a piece of information he says further supports his own conclusion: “I think police officers need to be desensitized. If you’re someone who’s afraid of animals, you shouldn’t be in a position where you’re going to have a gun and be associated with animals and the public.”

Cole’s story is just one of hundreds of incidents motivating people across the country to demand better training for police officers on effective ways to deal with dogs that they encounter on duty. Our pets are our family members — they’re not disposable property.

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Editor’s Note: *Name, dog breed and other identifying details have been changed to provide anonymity due to a non-monetary settlement reached between the dog’s owner and the police department. The actual dog involved in the shooting was a breed commonly listed as an aggressive dog — but most people would agree, it shares little resemblance with a pit bull.

This article was reported by Kristine Lacoste, and David Deleon Baker contributed.

Next… In Part 3 of this special series, we hear from a retired deputy (now an expert on canine aggression) who says some police officers are “going off the deep end.” They need to start “using [their] brains” when it comes to dogs, he says.

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1 comment

  1. Cindy Boling Reply

    I don’t know that I will have a comment to each segment of this coverage but I certainly could not refrain from comment to this Part II because of the “thought it was a pit bull” statement. If our neighbor had not run to our home upon hearing the gun shot and my screams we would never have know what Frank Brown said to the first other officer on the scene. She heard him state “I shot their dog – I thought it was a pit bull” – remember Lily was a beautiful 40 lb border collie. What we later leared from the IA investigator was that Sylvia did not in fact hear the entire statement which was “I thought their other dog was a pit bull so I SHOT THE DOG CLOSEST TO ME.” Our other dog, Gracey, a shepard lab mix never approached him and was in fact being held by my husband – Lily was no less than 5 ft away facing me when she was shot. The revelation of his actual statement caused more horror that what Sylvia heard.