It's Time to Train Officers Not to Kill Dogs

Cops are just "following policy" - and that's precisely the problem.


A cop shot a dog the other day. Again.

Maybe you've seen the video—it was all over the Internet, complete with the dog's grisly death spasms. Hawthorne, Calif., resident Leon Rosby was using his cellphone to record a standoff between police officers and armed robbers. At the end of the standoff, officers headed Rosby's way. He put his dog, a Rottweiler named Max, in his car, then placed his arms behind his back to be cuffed.  (He'd had run-ins with the law before.) 

As the officers began taking Rosby into custody, Max jumped out the car window and approached. At first he sniffed the ground and paced, agitated but not threatening. When an officer made a move toward Max, he jumped and snapped.

So the officer killed him.

This was just a few days after police officers in the Chicago suburb of South Holland went to the house of Randy Green to investigate a report of an unleashed dog. While the Green family slept inside, the officers watched their dog, Grady, rest on the front porch. After 20 minutes, according to the Greens' lawsuit, "Grady approached Officer [Chad] Barden," at which point Barden – who, the lawsuit contends, had a dog pole in his vehicle – shot him. 

That incident followed by just a few days another one, also caught on video, in which two El Monte, Calif., officers entered – without notice – the fenced yard of Chi Nguyen and shot one of the family dogs when it approached. The San Gabriel Valley Tribune reports "there were four children present at the home when the shooting occurred, and a children's pool party was taking place in a front yard across the street, according to the family and the video." El Monte Police Department spokesman Dan Buehler said the officer "followed policy."

That's precisely the problem.

Across the country, both state laws and departmental policies seem to let police officers use deadly force as a first resort against family pets that often present little or no threat. In one infamous 2010 case from Missouri, an officer shot and killed a dog that had been subdued and held on a catch-pole. In another, an officer shot D.C. resident Marietta Robinson's 13-year-old dog, Wrinkles, after Robinson had confined the dog to her bathroom.

Last year police officers chasing two suspects in Lake Charles,Louisiana, shot a dog named Monkey that barked at them. In Henrico,Va., last July, police officers went to the home of a homicide victim to notify the family of the slaying. When the family dog ran toward them, the officers shot and killed it. In Danville four years ago, a police officer shot and killed a 12-pound miniature dachshund. For growling at him.

Danville's chief says the officer followed policy.

Police officers receive extensive training about the use of force when it is applied against humans. But how many departments provide training on dealing with pets? Very few, says the Humane Society. This despite the fact that, according to a Justice Department paper ("The Problem of Dog-Related Incidents and Encounters"), 39 percent of U.S. homes have dogs. More than half of dog owners "consider their dogs family members," it continues, "and another 45.1 percent view them as companions or pets." Less than 1.5 percent view them as property.

Do we really need systematic training to combat a few isolated incidents, however unfortunate? The question rests on a false premise. Civil-liberties writer Radley Balko notes that over a nine-year period Milwaukee officers killed 434 dogs – about one every eight days. And that's just one city. Across the country, according to Justice, "the majority of [police] shooting incidents involve animals, most frequently dogs."

But surely those shootings occur because the animals themselves pose a serious threat, right? Nope. The Justice Department says not only that "dogs are seldom dangerous" but that even when they are, "the overwhelming majority of dog bites are minor, causing either no injury at all or injuries so minor that no medical care is required." As Balko writes, "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." 

Yet serious – deadly – attacks against dogs are all too common. They shouldn't be. And the solutions are obvious: Departmental policies, backed by state law, should require police officers to use lethal force against companion animals only as a last resort. Officers should receive training in safe and non-lethal methods of animal control – and in dog behavior: "An approaching dog is almost always friendly," according to the Justice Department; "a dog who feels threatened will usually try to keep his distance."

Finally, lawmakers should require an investigation of every dog shooting, to avoid what the public too often gets now: a knee-jerk defense of the officer involved and a callous dismissal of the family's suffering.

After all, if a child ran at a policeman with a knife the officer might fire in self-defense – yet nobody would just let it go at that. Animals don't occupy the same moral station as children, but family pets are more than just property. A badge and a gun should not be a license to shoot them at whim.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.