Police Abuse

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

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

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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.