by Francis Battista, Co-founder of Best Friends Animal Society
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
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.
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.
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.