Excessive Force

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This morning, I was chatting with a neighbor and somehow the conversation turned to the time a police officer shot and killed a dog on our street a few years ago. As the conversation progressed, I found myself feeling agitated because even though she noted that she would “never forget the sound of the dog crying,” she defended the officer and blamed the dog’s guardians for the outcome. On the other hand, I told her that it was absolutely unnecessary and that the officer should never have pulled his pistol. And here’s the thing: I saw it happen. I know it didn’t have to be.

Here’s what I wrote the day it happened, just over two years ago:

Yesterday morning, when I was out walking the dog, we walked by a group of three dogs that were off leash, a Rottweiler, a black lab mix, and a smaller dog that I couldn’t identify.  I was a little curious, but they seemed to be sticking around one particular house, so I figured their guardian had just let them out.  They weren’t aggressive and didn’t even come over to sniff.

Last night, we were out again and we saw the dogs again, this time in the yard of a house on the opposite corner from ours.  They were running about, including out into the road, so obviously something was up.  I had my cell with me and called animal control (who I have stored in the phone because the need to call seems to come up every few months).  They were closed and their message seemed to indicate that if the dogs didn’t appear sick or dangerous, there wasn’t much else to do.

After we got back from our walk, I went across the road into another neighborhood where I remember seeing a sign about a lost black lab mix.  I called, but that family had already been reunited with their dog and just hadn’t removed the signs.

When I got back home, the pack was nowhere to be seen.  I went back inside, frustrated, and figured I’d call the next morning if I saw them again.

This morning, I ran an errand, talked to a neighbor about the dogs and thought about it all a bit more.  Something weird was going on.  Last night, they were hanging out in the front yard of the house near ours.  I saw them run towards a man walking past and bark at him, which seemed to shake him up a little, but they didn’t attack him.  It just seemed like they were defending their territory.  I think that these three dogs live in that house, which was just recently moved into by the new owners.  Usually there were some dogs in the backyard, but I hadn’t heard them bark recently.  Plus, the house’s front lawn was getting to be very overgrown.  It’s like they hadn’t been there in quite a while.  Had they left the dogs to fend for themselves?  Did they leave overnight and just forget to lock the gate?  It wasn’t clear.

When I got back from my errand, a cop car pulled up to the house.  The officer got out of the car, walked into the front yard towards the three dogs who were laying there.  They got up and came at him, barking like the did at the man the night before.  The cop got freaked out.  He reached in his holster, pulled out his pistol, and then POP.

The dogs (two of them or possible all three, I’m not sure) scurried around the house.  I could hear a loud, painful crying and whimpering that ended a minute or so later.  The cop stood in the front yard, looking a bit stunned, and then called in backup.

A kid across the street saw it happen and yelled out to a friend down the street, “I think a cop just popped a cap in that dog!”  I watched the whole thing unfold from my front porch, not being able to shake that sound of the dog crying.

A few minutes later, more police and animal control showed up.  The woman from animal control carried the limp body of what looked like the black lab to her van.  I didn’t see the other two dogs.

I held out a small bit of hope that maybe, just maybe, that wasn’t a pistol he had pulled.  Maybe it was a tranquilizer.  But as I left for work a few minutes later, I saw the cops in the overgrown front yard with a metal detector, trying to find the shell casing.

I’m really angry by the way things went down.  First of all, how come animal control isn’t on call after 5pm?  If they had been able to help when I called the night before, this wouldn’t have happened.  Secondly, where the heck are the owners of that house?  Why would a brand new family leave a yard to get completely overgrown and leave behind their three dogs?  Lastly, and most frustratingly, why did the cop shoot the dog?  It was absolutely unnecessary.  Of course they got up and barked at him, he approached them, infringing on their territory.  Why didn’t he just call over to them from a safe distance?  Or call in for backup?  It was three dogs he was dealing with, what made him think he could deal with it on his own, even if they were completely docile?  Should an officer that’s that skittish around dogs really be the one to go on that type of call?

I’m going to talk to another neighbor that I saw talking with the cops and try to find out the full story.  If everything turned out the way it appeared to, I’ll be writing a letter to the police department about the way it went down.

I keep replaying the situation in my head.  There’s no reason it had happen like that.

Later that day, I wrote this:

I talked to my neighbor tonight and she filled me in, letting me know that yes, indeed, the lab was killed by the bullet. In addition, the bullet went through the lab (the oldest of the three) and grazed the smallest dog. Thankfully, the small dog is back at home, recovering, after a visit to the emergency room. It may have been the small dog that I heard wimpering, but I don’t think so.

Apparently the dogs have been digging holes under the fence and have gotten out frequently over the last few weeks. Animal control’s been there a number of times. Everytime the family there fills the holes, the dogs dig them back out again.

After I talked with my neighbor and got some more information, I went over and talked to the man himself, who was out in front of his house. He told me that the police seargent told him that the two large dogs “lunged” at the officer and that the officer didn’t even have time to get the gun fully aimed after he pulled it out of the holster.

As a recap:

  • From my vantage point, the officer made no attempt to call to the dogs. He walked directly at them, on their property.
  • Though the dogs did get up and come at him (and may have been barking, I can’t remember), I saw no evidence that they were lunging. What I saw was the officer back up, get nervous, pull his gun, point, and shoot.
  • Even if they did come at him agressively, he was approaching them on their property; shouldn’t he have been prepared to use non-lethal force, like his baton or mace? Aren’t police trained in this?

I’m also still confused why one cop was sent to handle three dogs and why he didn’t just wait for animal control to arrive since these dogs were doing nothing but laying in their own front yard.

This was the first time I’ve met this particular neighbor. While I’m downright angry at the way the situation went down, he seemed more stunned and saddened, just trying to make sense of it all. He told me about going to see his dog one last time and get his collar. He said he noticed that the bullet went in the dog’s side, near his rear leg, which seemed like a strange place if the dog was indeed lunging. He showed me the bloodstains on the ground and the spray paint marking where the bullet casing was found (the cops didn’t find it with their metal detector, he found it).

I gave him my name and number and let him know I’d be happy to help if he was going to file a complaint or press charges.

As I was walking Amina tonight and I thought about the pain this guy must be feeling at the loss of his friend, I thought that maybe there was a reason I locked myself out of my house today. Though nothing will bring his dog back, I hope he can get some sort of resolution to this.

Something I didn’t mention in the update is that when I was talking with the man in his front yard, I had Amina with me. As we were talking, I looked down and her tail was between her legs and she was shaking, something that doesn’t happen unless something’s spooked her. It was clear she could sense something bad had happened there — maybe she could smell the other dog’s blood on the ground — and she didn’t want to stick around.

The days following the shooting were very tense and stressful. I talked to a reporter from the local paper and spoke out (anonymously) about what happened. The feedback on the paper’s site was half “I can’t believe the cop did that!” the other half cheering the cop on and saying that I was full of crap despite the fact I witnessed it. A number of times, I looked out my front door and saw a cop car parked there, the officer staring at my house and taking notes. I spoke with an animal control officer, who was conducting an investigation for his office.

Eventually, the policeman who I saw outside my house on numerous occasions came to the door. I stepped out onto the porch and spoke with him. He was in charge of the police’s internal investigation and wanted to get my side of the story. I told him everything, as I did the newspaper and the animal control officer. The cop spent a lot of the time defending his fellow officer, almost like he was trying to convince me the shooting was justified. He showed me how much more difficult it is to pull the mace from a holster compared to the gun. He was friendly about it all and didn’t come off as intimidating, but I still came away from the conversation feeling pessimistic about how things would turn out.

Weeks passed, and nothing. No news in the paper, no calls from police or animal control. The neighbor decided not to press charges after he found out the most he’d be able to get out of it was $80 for the “value” of his dog and possibly reimbursement for cleaning blood off of his carpet. I eventually found out from speaking with another neighbor that the police had completed their internal investigation and found the officer was in the right. No action would be taken against the officer.

Big surprise.

Even though this happened over two years ago, the event still weighs on my mind. I’ve found myself scowling as police drive by and haven’t called animal control since then (rather, I’ve done a few catch-and-returns on my own). When I see an officer, I think to myself, “Is that the guy that shot the dog? Is he the one who fired a pistol with a kid only 20 feet away?” And I’ve lost a lot of faith in neighbors who feel that shooting a dog point blank is justified just because he’d escaped his yard and had been wandering the neighborhood.

I understand that police work is dangerous and I know that an aggressive dog, just like an aggressive human, may need to be subdued. But I sincerely hope that officers are receiving better training about how to deal with groups of animals (don’t try to handle them alone, don’t approach them on their property, use non-lethal force, etc.). Sadly, I suspect this is not the case.

4 Responses to “Excessive Force”

  1. Cups

    I’m really sorry to hear how that turned out, although I’m not at all surprised. You did the right thing by being vocal about it – changes can’t be made if no one raises their voice. Is there a local animal shelter that you could team with to encourage changes in the police force/animal control? It is difficult to make a big change on your own but maybe with help from an organization already involved in municipal politics you could open the eyes of the police force team in your town – maybe when they’re called out to a home for loose dogs they could use a tranquilizer instead of a gun.

  2. Jessi

    Cops can be waaay too trigger-happy. I carry citronella dog attack spray when I walk my dogs, maybe they should try that.

  3. Jeannie

    It sounds like you are still involved and concerned with your community and want desperately not to have this kind of encounter happen again. If this is correct, you may want to see if your police department wants to send its officers to a training offered by the American Humane Society called Bark…Stop, Drop, and Roll – http://www.americanhumane.org/protecting-animals/conferences-trainings/animal-emergency-services-trainings/police-officers-canine-encounters-bsdr/.

    It is designed specifically to train police officers how to assess and react to dogs. It is taught by animal control officers who work with police all the time. The little intro I got of this training was fantastic.

    Good luck! Feel free to email me if you want more information. Somewhere in my files is the email address of the woman who taught the class.

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