Note: This incident is apparently a year old, despite being dated July 23, 2013 on the newspaper site.
Police in Henrico County, Virginia, found 33-year-old Ricky Ellerbe dead (as originally noted by Mike Riggs), the apparent victim of a robbery that netted a cellphone and fifteen bucks. Officers then went to his home to deliver the bad news — and promptly killed the family dog. Really. This despite a growing awareness that police interactions with family pets are extremely problematic, a movement to pass laws to train police in better animal-management techniques, and official guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice cautioning that a majority of Americans view their dogs as members of the family.
From the News & Advance:
Henrico investigators swarmed the area with forensics technicians and tracking dogs, but no arrest had been reported Wednesday night. Ellerbe was one of five children; a brother, Gary, died in 2010 from a heart attack, three years after he'd been repeatedly stabbed.
And in a horrific turn of events, a Henrico police officer shot and killed the Ellerbe family pitbull, Tiger, as it charged toward the officer off its leash.
The unidentified officer and a detective had arrived at the home to notify family members that Ellerbe had been killed. His body was discovered shortly after 6 a.m. Wednesday, face down near an alley.
The pitbull ran from the backyard of the home toward at least one officer, who pulled his weapon and shot the dog in the home's front yard, according to Ellerbe's sister, Latoya.
"They had told me my brother was dead and I'd come out back to cry on the porch and Tiger must have heard them. He ran into the front yard and the officer shot him," LaToya Ellerbe said.
For anybody who knows dogs (that's not the actual Ellerbe family dog in the photo, FYI), it's not at all unusual for them to run "from the backyard of the home toward" a stranger they've just discovered on their turf. That's natural behavior, not necessarily threatening, and generally really easy to deal with when the owner is standing right there.
Police departments generally respond to these incidents by insisting that officers felt threatened, but as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals notes:
Policies that require only that an officer “feel” threatened set a very low threshold for justifying the killing of dogs. In virtually all cases we have examined, internal reviews of dog shootings have ruled them to be justifiable under existing policies, even though several cases have resulted in substantial civil judgments against police departments for wrongful destruction. Such incidents not only jeopardize the lives of companion animals, but also undermine the reputation of law enforcement agencies in the community.
The ASPCA urges training for law-enforcement officers to teach them a "force continuum" policy for interacting with animals that doesn't require the automatic discharge of a firearm.
The national problem of police encounters with dogs elicited a formal report from the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Oriented Policing Services last summer. The Problem of Dog-Related Incidents and Encounters emphasized that "[a] recent poll revealed that approximately 53.5 percent of owners consider their dogs family members, another 45.1 percent view them as companions or pets, and less than 1.5 percent consider them mere property."The report offered helpful tips for identifying canine body language, and then went on to echo the ASPCA:
Shooting a dog should always be the option of last resort. The safety of fellow officers and bystanders is put at risk in such situations, and when a law enforcement officer shoots a dog that does not constitute a serious threat, community trust is eroded and the department is opened to potential lawsuits and other legal action.
It's difficult to imagine a worse public relations fiasco for a police department, pet-wise, than to enter private property to deliver horrifying news about the loss of a family member, and then to create a brand-new horrifying situation by killing another family member.
In response to incidents like this, Colorado recently mandated training for police officers in better ways of managing encounters with dogs. Forth Worth, Texas, adopted similar training after public outrage over a shooting.
On a side note, it's statistically amazing how many of the dogs shot by police officers turn out to be "pit bulls" — especially since research shows that the breeds usually identified as "pit bulls" are not especially aggressive or unmanageable. According to the the American Temperament Test Society, a national non-profit organization that uses uniform standards for evaluating the temperament of dogs and then breaks the results out by breed, 86.8 percent of American Pit Bull Terriers and 84.5 percent of American Staffordshire Terriers have passed the organization's temperament tests. Compare that to 80 percent of Beagles and 80.3 percent of Collies (but 90.8 percent of Irish setters!). So-called "pit bulls" tend to rank in the middle of the pack.
Yeah, maybe police are running into passels of poorly trained or abused pit bulls, especially since they're the scary dogs of the moment and popular among people seeking out more of a weapon than a pet. Or maybe cops are just taking advantage of that reputation to resort to a default label for every dog they shoot under embarrassing circumstances.