On a chilly night in late February in Fishers, Ind., Patricia McConnell was taking her daughter’s 7-year-old, 20-pound terrier mix, Reese, out for a midnight potty.
Reese was harnessed and on a retractable leash, but as she bounded ahead around a corner, the dog saw a neighbor and started to bark. Unfortunately, this neighbor was Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal William “Buzz” Brown. Reese was able to bark only two times before the deputy shot the leashed dog twice.
Brown, who says he felt threatened, was two feet away from the dog when he thought she might attack him. Amazingly, Reese survived. However, because she was shot at such a close range, Reese’s front left leg and shoulder had to be removed, and her back left leg was left shattered. The vet bills reached $10,000.
Patricia McConnell said the shooting was so unexpected that she feared that if she said anything, the officer would fire at her as well. Her daughter, Deborah Twitty, told Fox59 that they live in fear of their neighbor. “I’m afraid he’s going to retaliate,” she said of the deputy.
U.S. Attorney Kerry Forestal responded to the public outcry that followed by saying, “I trust Chief Deputy Brown’s ability to make decisions on a daily basis, and I continue to trust him.”
Reese is very lucky to be alive — many dogs that have encounters involving police and guns don’t survive.
What’s Going On?
Recently, there has been a steady drip of awful stories like the one above. Most of them occur when a law enforcement officer feels threatened by a dog and makes a split-second decision to shoot. Sometimes, as with Reese, the dogs are leashed — or even tied up in their own yard. There are even shootings where it turns out the dogs were running away or hiding.
Because there are no national records or a centralized database of dog shootings, it’s hard to tell if incidents are on the rise in the United States. However, a review by Petful of “use of force” statistics from several large cities shows no notable uptick in these cases. In fact, in New York City the yearly number of dog shootings by police is far below the inflated numbers of the late 1990s (43 dogs shot in 2011 versus an average 82 per year in 1996-98; numbers include vicious dog attacks).
The increased attention to these cases in recent months appears to be due to heightened awareness, more extensive media coverage and social networking buzz when a shooting occurs. The shootings occur so often, in fact, that a certain numbness has started to set in.
One commenter online wryly remarks, “Same story. Family. Dog. Cops. Dog shot. Dog dead. Family bereaved. Shooting justified. No matter what. Repeat.”
Pit Bulls Are #1 Victim
The idea that pit-bull-type breeds are aggressive has led to many of these dogs being labeled as “threatening” by cops and shot dead with minimal provocation, sometimes in the dogs’ own yard. Petful found that around 75 to 85% of dogs shot by police are pit bulls.
This is not to say that other dog breeds haven’t suffered as well. German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Labrador Retrievers, terriers, Shar-Peis, even registered therapy and service dogs — all have been victims.
Just a few egregious examples:
- Late last summer in Spartanburg, S.C., a sheriff’s deputy shot dead an 8-year-old shepherd mix named Diamond who was tied to the front porch. “Why did you shoot my dog?” the owner pleaded. The officer’s response: “She tried to bite me.” Diamond was at the end of her restraint when she was shot, according to the dog’s owner.
- One night in April 2011, police in Camden, N.J., sprayed a neighborhood with gunfire to take down a pit bull puppy named Capone — even as one lone police officer pleaded, “Don’t shoot him!” Witnesses say more than 30 bullets were fired, ricocheting across vehicles and piercing a home. “It was like a war zone,” one startled resident recalls.
- A Gulfport, Miss., police officer investigating a possible break-in at the house next door fired five or six times at an 11-year-old dog named Melmo in the dog’s own backyard. Making matters worse, Melmo was on a chain that ended “about 30 feet away” from the officer, according to the dog’s owner.
- A Newfoundland named Rosie who had escaped from her home was Tased multiple times, then executed by officers in Des Moines, Wash. A dashboard video of the long ordeal shows officers wondering aloud what to do with the dog if they catch her — then they conclude, “We should just shoot [her].” They chase her down to finish the job. Another officer hollers “Nice!” when Rosie is shot. A witness says the officers high-fived one another afterward.
- Everything was friendly and conversational when a man in Kingman, Ariz., left his 2-year-old pit bull dog outside with police while he stepped inside his home to retrieve his ID. He told the officers that the dog, Blue, wouldn’t bite and says the officers seemed comfortable. Moments later, there was a loud pop outside. A neighbor says he saw a deputy fire his weapon as the dog casually walked by the group of officers. The neighbor also says he overheard another officer tell the shooter, “Go sit in your cruiser and keep your mouth shut.” The official police report claims the dog was charging and aggressive.
- On New Year’s Day of this year, a pit bull mix named Kincaid was barking at a man running from police who had trespassed into his yard. Baltimore police shot six times at the dog; half the shots missed Kincaid and his owner (who was reaching for the dog’s harness) by only inches. Kincaid died on the scene.
- A miniature bull terrier puppy named Colonel, who had just wandered out of his home in a bustling Chicago neighborhood, was shot twice by an officer who happened to be out front writing a parking ticket. Multiple witnesses say the puppy was simply sniffing a tree about a car-length away from the police officer who shot him. Colonel is lucky to be alive after five hours of emergency surgery.
- Baby Girl, a pit bull mix who was so sweet that one of her best friends was a rabbit, was taken to a dog park on Staten Island, N.Y., when a fight broke out between two other dogs. While those other dogs were being separated, the police were called. When they arrived, witnesses say Baby Girl got scared and ran toward the woods. Officers shot and gravely wounded her. Baby Girl held on through several surgeries as her family prayed she would pull through; however, she died a few days later.
The biggest factor in the shootings appears to be insufficient training of officers in dog behavior and non-lethal conflict resolution when dealing with animals.
Jim Crosby, a retired deputy in Jacksonville, Fla., says, “There’s no training that I’m aware of, nothing cohesive…. That’s a tool the officers haven’t been given even though they are given extensive training on everything else you can think of.”
Seen through the eyes of someone with little or no experience with dogs, a family pet bounding toward the door can easily be mistaken as a dog about to attack. If that person at the door has a badge and a gun, the consequences can be deadly.
Police officers shoot thousands of dogs per year, according to former officer Jim Osorio, who is now a specialist at the National Humane Law Enforcement Academy, which provides instruction to police departments. The question is, are there that many “aggressive” dogs? If so, why aren’t we seeing more dog attacks on mail carriers? “Just because a dog barks doesn’t mean it’s an aggressive dog,” says Osorio.
In fact, fewer than 1% of U.S. Postal Service workers are bitten by dogs. Unlike most police officers, postal employees are annually shown a two-hour video on canine behavior and given further training on “how to distract dogs with toys, subdue them with voice commands, or, at worst, incapacitate them with Mace,” according to journalist Radley Balko, who has written extensively on this topic.
A mail carrier told Petful, “I rarely feel scared of the pets that people have. In fact, I really like saying hi to the dogs when they come to greet me. I’m always armed with a Milk Bone and Mace just in case, though.”
The ASPCA and the Humane Society are two groups that offer to provide police departments with free training classes for dealing with dogs, but only a few departments choose to participate, they say.
Seeking Justice in the Courts
Pet owners do have one ace up their sleeve: the court system. Cases that have made their way through the legal system in recent years demonstrate that judges no longer accept that family pets can be shot dead simply as a matter of procedure.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, for example, ruled in favor of the Hells Angels in a case where police officers shot two dogs during a raid. Calling the shootings “unreasonable seizure” [PDF], the court chastised the police for failing “to develop a realistic plan for incapacitating the dogs other than shooting them.” The Hells Angels eventually received a total of nearly $1.8 million in a settlement.
Scott Heiser, senior attorney and criminal justice program director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, tells Petful that three major things account for unjustified police shootings of dogs:
- Poor training of police officers on matters of deadly force
- Internal reviews of the shootings that are “less than objective”
- The failure of victims to file a lawsuit and aggressively seek justice through the courts
According to Heiser, more people who lose their pets in unnecessary shootings should file suit, citing the constitutional protection against unlawful seizures (Fourth Amendment). “If the Hells Angels can win one of these cases, other victims in these types of cases can too,” he says.
As the saying goes, money talks. A growing number of high-dollar judgments against police departments are slowly creating change. More cities are beginning to mandate enhanced police training in non-lethal ways to deal with dogs, according to Osorio.
Institutional change moves at a snail’s pace, so these are welcome developments.
Next… In Part 2 of this special series, we discuss misconceptions about “aggressive” breeds.