'Proximity to Cop' Is a Capital Offense for Many Dogs
A. Barton Hinkle|Aug. 29, 2012 1:00 pm
A few weeks ago in Henrico, Va., 33-year-old Ricky Ellerbe was shot to
death for the $15 he had on his person. This is a horrible thing and no
mistake. But the story gets more
horrible yet. As The Richmond Times-Dispatch recounted in a news story, a
police officer and a detective went to the man’s home to inform his
relatives—and killed the family dog.
"They had told me my
brother was dead and I’d come out back to cry on the porch,” LaToya
Ellerbe told the newspaper. “And Tiger must have heard them. He ran into
the front yard and the officer shot him.”
In recent weeks
another police officer shot Scout, a German Shepherd that got out of its
yard in Prince William, Va. In Austin, Texas, a woman who thought her
house might have been broken into called the authorities. The responding
officer ended up shooting her 8-year-old dog, Papa, who was restrained
in the back yard. Around the same time, an NYPD officer shot a dog that
was barking outside a restaurant in Midtown (that dog lived), Florida
officers shot and killed three dogs in Loxahatchee, and so on. Incidents
such as these are so common at least a couple of Facebook pages track
them: “Mr. Policeman, Don’t Shoot My Dog,” and “Dogs Shot by Police.”
In most cases, the officer’s department deems the shooting justified,
and the story ends there. Slowly, however, that is changing. Last week a
Harrisonburg, Va., officer was convicted of animal cruelty for shooting
and killing a family pet. A couple of weeks ago the Jones family of
Pembroke Pines, Fla., received a $20,000 settlement in the death of
their family dog, Baxter.
Now the Franco family of St. Paul,
Minn., is suing the DEA and local authorities over a 2010 episode in
which, as Reason’s Mike Riggs recounts, the police “shot their dog, and
then forced their three handcuffed children to sit near the dead pet
while the officers ransacked the home.” Turns out the cops had the wrong
address – just as they did in a now-famous case involving Cheye Calvo,
the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Md. A SWAT team shot Calvo’s two pet
Labrador retrievers in the course of that wrong-guy drug raid. Two years
later, even after Calvo was cleared, Prince George’s Sheriff Michael
Jackson insisted, “We’d do it again. Tonight.” (Jackson lost his bid for
Cops do an often nasty job for little pay.
Nobody wants to see an officer get his face ripped off by an aggressive
animal. But as Radley Balko—who first drew attention to the issue three
years ago—wrote in his groundbreaking article, “Dogs in a Deadly
Crossfire”: “If dangerous dogs are so common, one would expect to find
frequent reports of vicious attacks on meter readers, postal workers,
firemen, and delivery workers. But according to a spokesman from the
United States Postal Service, serious dog attacks on mail carriers are
Attacks by dogs are vanishingly rare. Attacks on dogs? All too common.
A few police departments have started training programs to teach
officers how to deal with dogs. That’s an encouraging start. But mere
mechanics will not suffice. After all, most departments have a
mechanical approach in place already: If an officer feels endangered,
then lethal force is justified. The trouble with this approach is
that—as most people intuitively grasp—lethal force is rarely justified,
especially when it is the first resort rather than the last.
Lethal force is not the first resort in other potentially dangerous
situations. An officer summoned because of a psychotic making threats,
or a child wielding a knife, would not reflexively shoot first—and
certainly not with impunity—even though at that moment there might be
little more hope of reasoning with the individual than there is of
reasoning with a Rottweiler.
Family pets are not people, but
they are not potted plants, either. They have a certain moral station,
and police departments need guidelines reflecting that. Among other
things, those guidelines should require some degree of proportionality.
In just-war theory, the principle of proportionality requires that you
do not annihilate 20 million residents of Beijing with a nuclear warhead
because a Chinese fighter jet violated U.S. airspace. Regarding the
subject at hand, proportionality would require that an officer not
riddle a Welsh corgi with half-a-dozen .40-caliber rounds from a Glock
because it barked.
Pessimistically speaking, a few more
lawsuits might be needed before pets are no longer killed with impunity.
The burned hand teaches best, as they say. But let’s hope public
pressure is sufficient to bring about a change.
have to be brought to bear one way or another. Otherwise, to paraphrase
former Sheriff Jackson, they’ll do it again. Tonight.