Detroit Police Department Blames Drug War for Shooting So Many Dogs

Maybe end the drug war?


Nicole Motyka's three dogs, two of which were shot by the Detroit police last year on a drug raid // Nicole Motyka

Responding to Reason investigation that found Detroit police officers shot an alarming number of dogs during violent narcotics raids, Detroit Police Department brass say that's just an unfortunate consequence of the drug war.

Detroit is currently fighting several lawsuits over drug raids that resulted in police shooting family dogs. According to public records obtained by Reason, Detroit police shot 46 dogs over a year-and-a-half between 2015 and 2016. One officer alone had shot 69 dogs during the course of his career. The city settled another lawsuit last year for $100,000 after an officer shot a man's dog while it was chained to a fence.

The Detroit Police Department never responded to multiple calls and emails for comment from Reason, but in an interview on Monday with news station Local 4, Assistant Chief James White said the shootings don't happen during regular police runs and disputed the characterization of the animals as family pets.

"This isn't Fluffy the family pet in many instances," White told the news station. "Door comes off the hinges. There's pandemonium. People are running. Perpetrator, in many instances, has a weapon himself, can start shooting. Sometimes the dog is used as a tactic to get the advantage over the officers, and I just don't think it would be acceptable to an officer to put their life at risk to try to stop a dog from attacking them during a drug raid."

There are several issues with both White's comments and how they're framed by Local 4.

First, the headline of the news article says Detroit police "refute allegations that they shoot dogs at an alarming rate." White never disputes how many dogs it shoots per year, which are well above the numbers posted by substantially larger cities like Los Angeles and New York City. The LAPD, for instance, killed eight dogs in 2015. Chicago police shot or attempted to shoot more than 80 dogs over the year-and-a-half period examined by Reason, but Chicago has a population of more than 2 million, compared to Detroit's 600,000.

Neither does White dispute that one of his officers has shot 69 dogs over the course of his career. White says this is because the officer is the pointman on drug raids, meaning first in the door. That shocking numbers makes more sense when taking into account the enormous number of narcotics raids the Detroit Police Department runs every year.

"In 2016, 1,144 known narcotics locations, but during those raids, the teams unfortunately shot 31 dogs," White said in the interview.

Three of those lethal dog shootings happened when Detroit police raided the home of Nikita Smith on a narcotics search warrant. According to Smith's lawsuit, one of the dogs was in her bathroom when police shot it from behind a closed door.

Nicole Motyka, who is also suing the Detroit Police Department, said Detroit police shot two of her beloved dogs while they were behind a wooden barrier in the kitchen. "All I have is weed," her husband Joel Castro shouted as police ordered him to the ground. "Don't kill my dogs."

Both raids were for nothing more than suspicion of selling marijuana. Criminal charges were dropped in both cases. In Motyka's case, it turned out her husband was a state-licensed medical marijuana caregiver.

Here's what one of the officers in the raid on Smith's house said in a court deposition earlier this year obtained by Reason, when asked how many narcotics raids his unit conducts:

"Probably try like three, sometimes four a day. We raid more houses in the nation than anybody walking around God's green earth. We raid more houses than anybody. We do three a day at times."

In the TV interview, White says the department will consider looking at programs in other cities that have reduced their number of dog shootings. However, without a major change in how it fights the drug war, it's hard to see how the Detroit police substantively move those numbers. In fact, this is the exact argument I made in my investigative piece:

Police are routinely asked, especially in cash-strapped cities like Detroit, to handle much more than traditional beat work, including things like mental health services and animal control. Without proper training and resources, they're often put in unwinnable situations.

But on the other side of the national debate on policing that has erupted over the last two years are communities demanding to be policed like communities rather than combat zones. If the Detroit Police Department doesn't reform policies that treat beloved pets like collateral damage in the war on the drugs, the shootings, and the lawsuits, seem practically guaranteed to continue.

I know this is a crazy idea, but maybe the best way to avoid shooting people's dogs would be to stop breaking down their doors and and running into their houses with drawn guns, all because of some marijuana.