Police Abuse

'Proximity to Cop' Is a Capital Offense for Many Dogs

Attacks by dogs are vanishingly rare. Attacks on dogs? All too common.


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 re-election.)

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 vanishingly rare."

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.

Pressure will have to be brought to bear one way or another. Otherwise, to paraphrase former Sheriff Jackson, they'll do it again. Tonight.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. 

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  1. But nothing else happened, m’kay?

  2. First time through, I mixed up the first and last words in the phrase “dog-killing cops” and was hoping there was a new organized breed of superdogs getting payback.

  3. You never hear about the Fire Department going to the wrong house, busting in and hosing everything in sight. And those guys have no time to plan.

    1. What about all those paramedics knocking down the wrong door and performing CPR on perfectly healthy people? Come on, mistakes happen.

  4. In most cases, the officer’s department deems the shooting justified, and the story ends there.

    Shooting ranges, expensive. Shooting dogs – free.

  5. That poor dog looks like he would welcome being shot by a cop.

  6. Nobody wants to see an officer get his face ripped off by an aggressive animal.


    1. Actually, it starts to sound like a good idea, after one readings most anything Balko writes…

  7. Lawsuits? Like cops give a shit what the taxpayers in their towns have to pony up.

    Cops are hardly underpaid, either, and typically get outsized pensions for life, with very early retirement ages.

    Personal civil and criminal liability would go a long way towards ending these and other gratuitous abuses of power.

    1. Personal civil and criminal liability would go a long way towards ending these and other gratuitous abuses of power.

      Oh, but you don’t understand! Cops must make split second decisions! If they had to second guess themselves, they could die! Why do you want cops to die? Anti-cop bigot! Bigot! Irrational cop hater!

      1. If the cops aren’t doing anything wrong, then they have nothing to worry about. 😉

        That’s what the cops tell us. Let ’em live by it.

      2. Histrionic bigotry!

  8. Yet if I shoot a police dog somehow that animal is a ‘sworn officer’ and my penalties go waaaaaay beyond simple animal cruelty.

    Sounds about right.

    1. I believe that even includes instances which would, if it were any else’s attack-trained dog, be legitimate self-defense.

      1. You believe correctly.

  9. “Cops do an often nasty job for little pay.”


    1. Their base pay isn’t much, but they can easily double it with overtime.

      And for cops, overtime isn’t work. It’s a joy. It’s a lifestyle.

      I know cops who choose overtime over spending time with their children.

  10. Cops do an often nasty job for little pay.

    Cite??? They do a job that requires very little academic achievement, that bestows untold gratification by feeding their internal desire to exercise power and control over others, and seems to provide the opportunity for most of them seem to retire before they are ready to start buying Just For Men.

    1. Most of the time a cop’s job is pretty fucking boring, which is why I suppose they like to kill time by fucking with the public.

      1. Most people’s jobs are boring. We don’t get to shoot dogs on account of it.

        And a dog would certainly pose a greater danger to me–an over 50 untrained civilian–than to a 25 year old cop.

      2. (Sorry, I’m not slagging you, I’m just venting.)

  11. 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

    You need to read more of Balko’s posts if you think that, Hinkle.

    1. Yeah… It seems that there was a recent case where the cops were called out to check on a despondent man, grieving for his brother who had just died.

      They were worried that he might be sad enough to be suicidal, so they opened fire on him with rubber bullets to cheer him up. When he tried to run for cover, clearly not understanding what was happening, they shot him in the back — with a rifle — and killed him. Nobody even asked WTF a group of cops was doing, pointing a rifle at an unarmed man at close range, to begin with.

  12. Have them talk to the post office. Mailcarriers around the world have managed to soldier their way through their jobs without killing any dogs.

  13. Cops do an often nasty job for little pay


    For the link-challenged:

    STEP 1
    (Sworn Officer)
    $30.80 $5,359.20 $64,310.40
    STEP 2
    (6 Months)
    $33.02 $5,745.48 $68,945.76
    STEP 3
    (18 Months)
    $34.52 $6,006.48 $72,077.76
    STEP 4
    (30 Months)
    $35.86 $6,239.64 $74,875.68
    STEP 5
    (42 Months)
    $37.64 $6,549.36 $78,592.32
    STEP 6
    (54 Months)
    $40.33 $7,017.42 $84,209.04

    When I make as much as a step one officer, I’ll begin to agree with you that they have a nasty job for little pay.

    Right now, I’ll hedge by saying they have a potentially nasty job for relatively decent pay.

    1. Yeah, I suspect your average E-3 or E-4 out in Helmand or Khowst for a year would probably think he had a wee bit harder job for less $ than a LEO that gets to go home each day.

      1. Other differences…

        E4 shoots a “civilian” in a chaotic situation, he might be court-martialed and have to prove that the “civilian” was planting an IED under his Humvee.

        When a cop shoots an unarmed citizen in boxer shorts because the guy moved his right hand two inches backward “as if he was going for a gun”, he gets a paid vacation.

        1. When a soldier shoots a civilian, it’s a potential diplomatic incident. There are people with guns who represent that civilian. Thus the soldier must be held accountable.

          When a cop shoots a civilian, he is the people with guns representing that civilian. So nothing else happens.

  14. “A few police departments have started training programs to teach officers how to deal with dogs.”

    My town has a very simple one – “PIT BULL!!!” BLAMBLAMBLAMBLAM.

    1. Stop resisting!

  15. Cheye Calvo’s house wasn’t a wrong address. The parcel was addressed to his house.

    1. Therefore his Labrador retrievers posed a deadly threat and had to be shot on sight.

  16. Alt text: Kill me now.

  17. God I hate the anthropomorphizing of fucking dogs. Cops are cunts. So are most people’s dogs. Get the dogs vicious enough and I see this as a self-correcting problem.

  18. Police culture is inhumane across the board. Blame this on a cultish contempt for life that emanates directly from unionized authoritarianism.

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