Police actions questioned in shootings of dogs

Officer training seen part of solution; families often sue over pet’s death

As Pittsburgh continues to mourn Rocco, the K-9 officer killed in the line of duty last month, some are focusing attention on other dogs killed in the course of police work. ‘If you shoot a police dog, it’s a crime,’ says Patrick Reasonover, producer of a documentary tracking the issue. ‘If police shoot your dog, it’s fine.’
As Pittsburgh continues to mourn Rocco, the K-9 officer killed in the line of duty last month, some are focusing attention on other dogs killed in the course of police work. ‘If you shoot a police dog, it’s a crime,’ says Patrick Reasonover, producer of a documentary tracking the issue. ‘If police shoot your dog, it’s fine.’

PITTSBURGH — The police officer tried everything to avoid shooting the dog, Regina Falk said.

On a day in April, 2012, the “pit bull” type dog, which belonged to a neighbor, lunged at the officer three times on the street near Mrs. Falk’s house in Aliquippa, Pa. Each time, the officer backed away. Finally, the dog was so close that he had to shoot.

“He had no choice,” she said. “It was either take the dog or let the dog take him.”

The incident that Mrs. Falk witnessed is part of a growing national issue, as police sometimes collide with the elevated status of family pets. Videos of pet dogs killed by police regularly go viral. Deaths are also tracked and publicized through social media and on Facebook pages such as Dogs Shot By Police.

Randall Lockwood, senior vice president with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has been studying the issue for about 15 years. Nearly every day, he said, he runs into a new case of a police shooting of a pet dog.

As Pittsburgh continues to mourn Rocco, the dog killed in the line of duty last month, some are focusing attention on other dogs killed in the course of police work.

“If you shoot a police dog, it’s a crime,” said Patrick Reasonover, producer of a documentary tracking the issue, Puppycide, that is now in production. “If police shoot your dog, it’s fine.”

One week ago, a police officer investigating a burglary in Glen Burnie, Md., killed a pet dog in a family’s front yard while the dog’s owner was in the basement preparing for a Super Bowl party. That incident has sparked a Facebook page for the deceased Chesapeake Bay retriever that has more than 11,000 followers and hundreds of passionate comments.

The Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board has received four complaints since 2011 from people whose dogs have been killed by police, Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger said.

Ms. Pittinger said she was not allowed to release details of any of the complaints because none was granted a public hearing — though not all of the cases are closed. The gist of the complaints, she said, is that police have killed their dogs “for a reason that wasn’t satisfactory to them.”

Complaints to the Citizen Police Review Board are granted a public hearing depending on “whether or not the evidence supports the allegation,” she said.

The incidents raise the question of how police officers should react when they run into an aggressive dog and what qualifies as aggressive. Some of the encounters occur after police officers mistakenly enter the wrong home, Mr. Longwood said, further complicating the issue.

Most police departments don’t train officers to deal with pet dogs, said Thomas Aveni, the executive director of the Police Policy Studies Council, a New Hampshire think-tank that researches the use of force by police.

The issue of training police to handle pet dogs is rarely even discussed, Mr. Aveni said. “There’s no training with regards to what to do or what not to do,” he said.

In Toledo, some efforts have been made over the years to give police officers possible alternatives to shooting dogs.

In 2002, for instance, officers and employees from the city’s neighborhoods department learned tips for dealing with dogs and walked through the county pound, trying to identify and categorize various dogs by their behavior.

Nevertheless, dogs have continued to be killed over the years by police.

Typically, such incidents involve dogs that have attacked people or other dogs or that appear to be threatening when police arrive at a home with warrants.

Last spring, police shot and killed a dog that had reportedly bit four North Toledo residents. Neighbors and the owner gave differing stories on whether the dog had been allowed to run loose or whether the bite victims had been throwing bricks at a chained dog.

The ASPCA has tried to offer more training to officers in the New York City area, Mr. Longwood said. The organization tries to strengthen bonds between police departments and animal control agencies so they can work together in situations in which officers might encounter dogs.

Mr. Reasonover, the documentary producer, said the issue arises from the increased role that pets play in Americans’ lives and the greater visibility of law enforcement.

“Police officers, for a variety of reasons — the war on drugs, war on terrorism — have stepped up their presence in our lives as well,” he said. “You have these two groups meeting and then the police officers end up encountering family pets.”

In deciding whether to shoot a dog, police officers should use the “deadly force” doctrine, Mr. Aveni and Mr. Longwood agreed, killing the dog only if the officer or others are in serious danger. The difficulty is how to determine quickly whether a dog poses a threat.

“The problem we and other groups have is it’s a low standard,” Mr. Longwood said.

Mr. Aveni has first-hard experience with the issue — he said he was bitten while entering suspects’ homes during his time as a police officer. He suggested taking the dog’s size and temperament into account, as well as its surroundings. A dog that lives in a house where drugs are sold is more likely to be trained to be vicious than one in other homes, he said.

Before resorting to a handgun, police officers should consider blasting dogs with pepper spray, waving a baton at them, hitting them with a baton, or throwing obstacles in their way, Mr. Aveni said. Tasers don’t work well because they are oriented to strike vertically instead of horizontally — a dog on four legs.

“If they’re given one good whack ... they’ll respect the baton,” Mr. Aveni said. “If it’s swinging, they’ll maintain their distance.”

Concerns about dog deaths and a lack of training don’t mean there aren’t dangerous dogs sometimes deployed against police, said Mr. Reasonover.

“Our documentary doesn’t presume foul for killing all dogs — there very may well be instances where they have to shoot the dog,” he said. “It just seems like right now there’s no protocol — they just kill them willy-nilly.”

Some states have instituted measures to help police handle aggressive dogs. Maryland has put catch-poles — lassos used to leash dogs — in all its police cars, Mr. Longwood said.

After a highly publicized dog death by police in Colorado, the state last year passed the “Dog Protection Act,” requiring police departments to develop training programs on encounters with dogs in the line of duty.

In some cases, cities have been sued by the owners of dogs slain by police. In 2006, the city of Costa Mesa, Calif., paid a family $225,000 to settle a lawsuit over the killing of its “pit bull” by a police officer, according to the Los Angeles Times. Mr. Longwood said he has seen dozens of cases in which cities paid five-figure and six-figure settlements.

Reflecting on the shooting she witnessed in 2012, Mrs. Falk sympathized with the police officer by relating a story of her own. After one of her dogs attacked her, she put it down three days later.

Still, as a dog-lover, she understood why that dog’s owners were upset after the shooting.

“I would be very upset,” she said. “But once they showed me the video, I would have understood.”

Blade staff contributed to this report.

Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Richard Webner and Anya Sostek are staff writers for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Richard Webner at: rwebner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4903.