Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Are local police shooting dogs first, asking questions later?

HOUSTON – It’s a pet owner’s nightmare.

Your dog gets gunned down right in front of you.

In fact, the KHOU 11 News I-Team found hundreds of cases where Houston-area law enforcement pulled the trigger and shot dogs.

No doubt, many of the cases were self defense where the officer had no other choice, but to shoot.

But some families said their “best friend” was shot needlessly.

The issue of dog shootings by police was the focus of a recent U.S. Department of Justice report suggesting that departments add specialized training focused on teaching officers how to safely interact with dogs.

Wes and Aisling Jones hope that happens in Houston.

A smile comes to their face when the couple talks about their Boxer named “Boss.”  “He was the runt, with a solid black face,” recalled Aisling. She adopted Boss eight years ago and the couple says he was always gentle.  In pictures he’s seen playing with family members, including babies.

“We looked forward to him being around our kids,” said Aisling. “[It] is really what we wanted, but,” she said as her voice trailed off sadly.  That dream ended last fall.

Wes Jones says he was only trying to stop the neighbor’s dog from barking.  “Unfortunately, I sprayed the dog with the water hose,” said Wes. “To get him to back off.”  As a result, their neighbor called Houston police.

Soon two officers showed up, and walked up to the couple’s open front door.  The Jones say Boss was inside the living room.

Wes recalled being in the kitchen, ten to fifteen feet from the dog.  Suddenly, he heard knocking, followed by something he’ll never forget.  “Right after the knock, I mean two, three seconds,” said Wes. “I hear a shot and then more shots.”  Wes said he didn’t hear any barking or any growling as Boss went toward the door after officers knocked.  In a departmental report on the shooting, the HPD officers said, “A large boxer dog charged out the front door.”  But the Jones point to pictures they say prove Boss was four feet inside their front door when he was first shot.  The couple said their injured dog then ran outside, away from officers, toward his “safe place” where he kept his toys.  But the Jones said the bullets kept coming.

“They looked at it like they were at the shooting range,” said Aisling. “They had a real flesh target and they went after him.”  Boss was shot twice.

He eventually bled to death as Aisling held him in her arms.  “You know, when they say a dog is a man’s best friend?” said Aisling through her tears. “They really are.”  In the end, the Houston Police Department ruled the shooting was justified.  In fact, the department said it has ruled all 187 officer-involved shootings of dogs since January 1, 2010 as justified.  According to departmental records, 121 of those dogs died.

HPD declined to talk about the cases on camera, citing a pending lawsuit arising from one of the shootings.  However, a police spokesman said departmental policy authorizes officers to use any force necessary to protect someone in imminent danger of an attack.  But the 11 News I-Team found a trail of heartbroken dog-owners that stretches beyond city limits.  A review of cases from across the Houston-area revealed at least 228 dogs shot by police and deputies since 2010.  Out of that number, 142 dogs died.

“If the dog turns and comes at a citizen, or the deputy, they have all right to use lethal force,” explained Dpt. Thomas Gilliland of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office  Records show Harris County deputies shot 38 canines in the last three-and-a-half years.  The I-Team asked Gilliland if the shootings were justified.

“The justification is, in that matter, and at that moment the deputy had to choose the decision to use lethal force against that animal,” explained Gilliland.  But some say there’s a better way.

“A lot of times, officers are not sent to training to get that type of certification to feel comfortable enough to deal with these animals,” explained Sgt. Joseph Guerra of the Precinct 6 Constable’s Department.

Guerra works as a cruelty investigator for the Houston Humane Society and teaches police how to safety interact with threatening dogs.  He demonstrated how a police baton can be used to distract a dog.

“It’s enough for you to back up slowly and exit the gate and make that phone call to the owner and have them put that dog up,” explained Guerra.  He believes mandatory training for officers is the key to lowering the number of dogs shot and killed by police.

As of press time, neither HPD, nor the Harris County Sheriff’s Office requires such lessons.

“We need to get those officers involved in some mandated training in how to defend before going to deadly force,” said Guerra.  It’s an idea the Jones agree with.

They believe what happened to them, should never happen again.

“If they can get away with shooting a dog, why would they stop there?” said Aisling.

According to figures from both departments, Houston police shot more dogs last year than New York City Police officers shot in 2010 and 2011 combined.

Following shootings in their cities, both Arlington and Fort Worth Police Departments started mandatory dog training for officers last fall.

State law makers are considering a bill now that would require the training for officers across Texas.

by Scott Noll | KHOU 11 News

Posted on May 14, 2013 at 11:28 PM | Updated Wednesday, May 15 at 9:36 AM

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