It's Time for Cops to Stop Shooting Dogs

Another day, another horrific story about the police killing a beloved family pet.


The sheriff's department in Prince Edward Co., Virginia, isn't returning phone calls about Party. No great surprise. A deputy shot the dog in late June, killing it. The department issued a CYA press release, then dummied up—perhaps in the hope the whole thing would blow over.

No wonder: According to a news account, the deputy went to the home of Stephen Carwile to serve a paper in a non-criminal matter. The family wasn't home. The department's press release says the deputy "was charged by a vicious dog." That would be Party—a Golden Retriever. We all know how vicious that breed is. The release says the dog "lunged at [the deputy] so he fired his weapon as required by training."

Golden retrievers aren't the only vicious breed, apparently. Just ask Craig Jones, the owner of Arfee. Jones, a Colorado resident, had gone to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, last month upon the death of his mother. One morning he went to a coffee shop and left Arfee, a 2-year-old black Labrador, in his van with the window open halfway. Someone thought the van was suspicious and called the police. An officer arrived. The dog barked, so the officer shot him through the window. The department then labeled Arfee a "vicious pit bull."

Maybe we need a new dictionary entry: "Vicious dog, n.: Any dog shot by a law-enforcement officer."

Carwile and Jones were fortunate enough not to see their dogs get gunned down. Nicole Echlin and her 6-year-old daughter weren't so lucky. A few days ago their year-old shepherd mix, Apollo, got loose. Officers from the Hometown, Illinois, police department found the dog in Echlin's yard just as Echlin and her daughter were returning home themselves. Before Echlin could coax the dog inside, an officer shot it in the head.

At least that story has a silver lining: Chief Charles Forsyth promptly fired him.

It would be nice to call these isolated incidents. Unfortunately, they are anything but. Police officers shoot dogs with dismaying regularity. The story about Apollo ran on July 28. The next day The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported: "A DeKalb County police officer resigned Monday after coming under fire for shooting a resident's German shepherd and then blocking the owner from taking the dog to the vet. Doctor, a 9-year-old family pet, surprised Officer David Anthony Pitts who had come to the house on Mary Lou Lane near Decatur on Thursday because of a false alarm. The officer shot the dog in the face."

The same day, a Texas paper reported that a resident of Cedar Park, an Austin suburb, had called police to report a wandering pit bull: "According to police, when the officer arrived on the scene, the dog began walking toward the officer, and that's when he pulled his weapon and shot the dog twice."

A couple of weeks ago in Minneapolis, officers were chasing a teenager who had crashed a car. When they encountered Paul Trott's Italian mastiffs, Tito and Vita, they opened fire, killing Tito. This spring Redford Township, Michigan, police officers who were chasing a suspect entered a couple's back yard and shot a 10-month-old puppy. The shooter said the dog was in the way.

Too often, incidents such as these lead to pro forma investigations that find the officer followed policy, or was defending himself—and there the matter ends. In June, the Maldonado family of Hammond, Indiana, "was cooking in the backyard with their dog Lily playing outside," reported KMSP-TV. An officer responding to reports of a loose pit bull showed up—and shot the dog. "A statement from the police determined the officer was defending himself from Lily," the story concluded.

If the U.S. were overrun by dangerous dogs, you would think we'd hear a lot more about a biting epidemic. Yet postal workers, meter readers and pizza deliverymen—among others—all manage to do their jobs without either getting maimed by pets or killing them. It seems awfully curious that police officers seem to be the only ones who face such a stark either/or.

No wonder public outrage over such incidents has been growing—you can find plenty of it all over social media. After an officer was cleared in a shooting earlier this year in Filer, Idaho, local residents launched a recall campaign against the mayor and the city council. Colorado has passed a law requiring all police officers to receive training on how to deal with domestic animals. Here in Virginia, Henrico's police department offers video instruction on dealing with pets. And the Richmond Police Department has just partnered up with the SPCA to teach officers how to read dog behavior in order to prevent harm—either to the policemen or to the animals.

Arlington, Texas, provided some similar training that already has paid off in a big way. After residents reported seeing a "vicious" pit bull roaming about in June, Sgt. Gary Carter investigated and found the dog was simply lost—and quite friendly. He took it to a local animal shelter, which reunited the dog, named Jeffrey, with his owner. The story went viral; the department's Facebook post about it alone has more than 12 million visitors and more than 177,000 likes. Sure beats fielding hate mail after a shooting, doesn't it?

Eventually Jeffrey's owners decided they didn't want him, and they surrendered him to the animal shelter. The person who ended up adopting him? Sgt. Carter. "Maybe people can realize, first of all, that not all big dogs are dangerous," he told a local TV station. "And second of all, that not all police officers are out to shoot big dogs, because we're not." 

True. Cops aren't bad people. Most of them love animals as much as the next guy. But it's clear many of them still need more tools to help them deal with family pets. And eventually, most law-enforcement agencies probably will provide them.

But given the slow pace of reform, it looks like a lot more dogs are going to die first.