A police officer chasing a suspect entered Bianca Alakson's fenced-in backyard the other day. When her 10-month-old Labrador-mix puppy ran toward the Redford Township, Ohio, officer, he shot the dog twice, killing it. Alakson's boyfriend, Ryan Showalter, ran outside and demanded to know why. He was arrested for interfering with an investigation.
"I asked him why," Showalter said. "And he said, 'Because he was in our way.' I was breaking down hysterically in the back seat of the cop car, crying. I didn't know what to do."
This wasn't long after Cole Middleton, a resident of Raines County, Texas, called the police to report that his house had been burgled. When an officer arrived Middleton's dog started barking. According to news reports, "the deputy claimed the dog was about to bite him and shot the dog to defend himself. … Middleton says the dog was shot in the head. He begged the deputy to finish off his cowdog named Candy since the dog was suffering."
"I was so upset," Middleton told KLTV-7 News. "I went over there to her and she was still alive and I begged and pleaded with him to please shoot her again because I don't have any firearms. They got stolen. He went and got in his vehicle and backed out of my driveway.
"And then I had to do the unthinkable. … I had to kill my dog with my bare hands and put her out of her suffering, praying for this to be over with," Middleton said.
Those are just two of many cases in which police officers have killed family pets recently and without any apparent justification. There have been countless others. Police entered a back yard in Mobile, Alabama, encountered a dog, and shot it. A Tehachapi, California, officer saw a dog run toward him while he was performing routine code enforcement checks. "He just pulled out his gun and boom, boom, boom," reported a witness. An officer responding to a complaint about a moving van in the street in Columbus, Ohio, shot a dog nine times after it growled at him. And in Filer, Idaho, an officer shot a dog whose owner was throwing his 9-year-old son a birthday party. You can watch the dash-cam video (warning: strong content and language) by Googling "officer shoots dog at boy's birthday party."
In most such cases, what happens afterward is: nothing. The police department says it will investigate the shooting, and then the incident disappears into a circular file or a black hole. Not always: The Texas officer who shot Middleton's dog was fired. But the police department in Filer decided officer Tarek Hassani was justified in using deadly force against a family pet.
Fortunately, some police departments have begun training officers in how to read animal behavior. Most dogs that feel threatened don't run toward the perceived threat, for instance—they run away. "An approaching dog is almost always friendly," according to a Justice Department report, "The Problem of Dog-Related Incidents and Encounters." Here in Virginia some departments do a better job than others. But the commonwealth has not passed a law requiring such training, as Colorado has.
Meanwhile, public pressure to protect dogs is mounting. Filer residents were so upset by its department's decision that some launched a recall effort to unseat the mayor and the entire city council. A Kickstarter campaign has raised more than $45,000 for the documentary Puppycide.
"When we first learned about puppycide," the filmmakers write, "we assumed that these must be cases of police responding to threats on their lives from dogs trained to attack by criminal owners. That couldn't be further from the truth. We found scores of videos and news stories about dogs who were laying down, tails wagging, even running away but still shot by officers who used lethal force as their first and only response."
Nobody wants to see police officers—already underpaid and underappreciated—get hurt in the line of duty. What people object to is the gratuitous slaughter of pets that pose no threat. Officers couldn't shoot children with such impunity, and many pet owners love their animals almost as much as their kids.
That shouldn't be surprising. A special bond between people and dogs has developed over thousands of years of domestication.
Recent work by Hungarian researchers has shown that dogs can read emotion in human voices and, as The Washington Post reported the other day, "other studies have revealed that dogs yawn when they see humans yawning and that they nuzzle and lick people who are crying; scientists consider both behaviors displays of empathy, a rarely documented trait in the animal kingdom."
If dogs can read other species' behavior signals and show empathy toward them, then surely police officers should be able to as well.
This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.