Civil Liberties

Cop vs. Dog


Last July I wrote a piece for The Daily Beast on the continuing cops-shooting-dogs problem. While it's difficult to say just how often this happens (police departments tend to be less than forthcoming with the data), it's often enough to produce a regular stream of news stories. What I did discover while reporting that piece is that very few police departments provide training for their officers on how to deal with dogs, something I found astonishing given how often your typical cop is likely to come into contact with one. By contrast, a U.S. Postal Service spokesman told me all of their employees get annual training on interaction with dogs. Probably not coincidentally, he also said serious dog attacks on postal workers are vanishingly rare. The other problem is that there's rarely any accountability for these shootings. If a police officer says he felt threatened by the dog, that's usually enough to justify the shoot, even if the dog was a miniature Dachshund, or a Jack Russell Terrier.

Three cases of cop-on-canine violence in the news this week illustrate these problems. The first involves the disturbing video below, in which police officers in Lagrange, Missouri shoot a chained American Bulldog. A few points. First, the dog obviously poses no immediate threat to anyone. It's chained. Until the officer starts chasing it with a restraining pole, the dog is calmly lying on the ground. Second, even if you take the neighbor's complaint and the police report at face value, the dog never actually bit anyone. The complaint was that it growled. All dogs growl. If the dog has come off its property to threaten neighbors, the solution is to hold the owner accountable, not to execute the dog. Third, this dog is not a "pit bull," as police claim. It's an American Bulldog, which shares few characteristics with what are commonly called pit bulls, save perhaps for some physical resemblance. (The police definition of "pit bull" often seems to be "any dog we shot.") Finally, even if this were an aggressive dog, the shooting is outrageous. The animal was restrained and calm for most of the video. The police had ample opportunity to call animal control or a vet to subdue it.

The officers have been cleared of any wrongdoing. And the owner has been cited and fined.

In the second case, police in Washington, D.C. shot eight rounds at a dog belonging to 62-year-old Marietta Robinson. The dog was killed. Police had a search warrant naming Robinson's grandson. Robinson says the man hasn't lived in her home for years. Robinson says she asked if she could put the dog in the bathroom during the search. They allowed that. Then they opened the door and shot the dog anyway. (Hat tip to Patrick at Popehat for this story, who also has some excellent commentary.)

Finally, to illustrate the point that opening fire even on actually agressive dogs is a dangerous way of subduing them, there's this story from Philadelphia:

A Philadelphia police officer was shot in a leg Thursday morning when members of a team serving a narcotics warrant in East Germantown opened fire on an attacking dog, authorities said.

Cpl. Lawrence McKenny was treated at Albert Einstein Medical Center and released.

It was not clear whether McKenny, 38, was hit with a bullet fired by another officer or from his own gun, department spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore said.

The officers were serving a warrant in the 5700 block of Lambert Street about 9:45 a.m. when a pit bull attacked them from behind. Both officers turned and fired, killing the dog, Vanore said.

The point here is not that all cops are trigger-happy dog murderers. But there does seem to be an attitude that an officer is justified putting a few bullets into a dog if he feels even the slightest bit of discomfort around the animal. Mere fear of a bite, not even an actual bite, is justification for gunfire. Subsequent complaints about dog killings are usually dismissed with little consideration. The lack of training is especially troubling. A spokesman for the Humane Society told me last year that his organization offers free training to any police department that requests it. He could only think of a few that had taken advantage of the offer.