article

07.19.09

Dogs in a Deadly Crossfire

Confronted by the family pet, police often shoot first and ask questions later, reports Radley Balko. Among hundreds of recent victims: Labradors, Wheaten terriers, and a five-pound Chihuahua.

Beginning next year, police departments in Maryland will be required to report to the governor's office every time they kill a dog during a drug raid. That requirement is part of a new law pushed by Cheye Calvo, the mayor of the small town of Berwyn Heights.

Calvo proposed the legislation because police officers conducted a particularly violent raid last summer on his home in Prince George's County after intercepting a package of marijuana at a delivery-service warehouse. The cops then completed the delivery themselves to the address on the package. As it turns out, the house belonged Calvo, who had no connection to the drugs. The package was part of a botched distribution scheme in which an accomplice working for the delivery service was supposed to have intercepted it before it was delivered.

“You’re kicking down doors, barging in with guns, and when animals do what animals do, they become collateral damage.”

The raid made headlines around the world, not only because the police mistakenly busted into the home of a sitting mayor (believe it or not, that has happened elsewhere), but because they killed Calvo's two black Labradors, Peyton and Chase. Peyton was shot four times. Chase was shot twice, once from behind as he fled.

Within days, Calvo and his family were cleared of any wrongdoing, but Prince George's officials have steadfastly refused to apologize. As Calvo later told a local TV station, "The county has defended their actions, saying basically that what they did to us is standard operating procedure. That's the chilling message."

And, unfortunately, it appears to be true—the shooting of dogs by police has become troublingly common across the country. My beat as a journalist includes police misconduct, and I've noticed an increase in media accounts of police officers shooting the family pet—with a notable lack of remorse or disciplinary consequences. This sad trend appears to be a side effect of the new SWAT, paramilitary focus in many police departments, which has supplanted the idea of being an “officer of the peace.”

"I think all of this drug-war imagery has produced a mentality that didn't used to exist," says Norm Stamper, who was police chief of Seattle from 1994 to 2000 and served 28 years in the San Diego Police Department. "It's 'I'm part of a war, I have a mission, and nothing is going to get in the way of me completing that mission.' You're kicking down doors, barging in with guns, and when animals do what animals do, they become collateral damage. Too many officers have gotten rather callous about it, I'm afraid."

The raid on Calvo's home was actually the second in 10 months in which police in Prince George's County burst into a private home during a drug raid, shot and killed the family dog, then realized they had raided the wrong house. But national statistics on police-involved pet shootings are difficult to come by. Randal Lockwood of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recently told the Las Vegas Review-Journal he sees 250 to 300 incidents per year in media reports, and estimates another 1,000 aren't reported.

The Indianapolis Star reported that between 2000 and 2002, police in that city shot 44 dogs. A recent lawsuit filed by the Milwaukee owner of a dog killed by police found police in that city killed 434 dogs over a nine-year period, or about one every seven-and-a-half days. It's impossible to say how many of those were pets (versus strays), or in how many of those shootings the dog may have actually presented a serious threat to the officer or someone else. But in too many reported accounts of dog shootings, it seems doubtful that lethal force was necessary.

It is easy to imagine that some breeds of dog might legitimately pose a threat to police officers in volatile situations. But that Calvo’s two black labs posed any serious risk to an armored, heavily armed SWAT team stretches the bounds of credulity. The same can be said of a host of recent dog shootings in which a police officer said he felt “threatened” and had no choice but to use lethal force, including the killing of a Dalmatian (more than once), a yellow Lab , a springer spaniel, a chocolate Lab, a boxer, an Australian cattle dog, a Wheaten terrier, an Akita, and even a Jack Russell terrier. Not small enough for you? How about a 12-pound miniature dachshund? Or a five-pound chihuahua?

"We're definitely hearing about these stories more often," says Adam Goldfarb, who directs the Pets at Risk program for the Humane Society of the United States. "It's hard to say if that's because it's happening more often, or because it's just getting more coverage when it does."

Last year, for example, a local news station in Oklahoma aired security-camera footage of a police officer pulling into driveway of dog owner Tammy Christopher—just to ask for directions. In the video, Christopher's Wheaten terrier runs out from the house, and it's difficult to tell whether the dog is charging the officer or bounding out to greet him. But the officer was on the dog's property. And instead of merely getting back into his car, he pulled out his gun and shot the dog dead. The officer was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Police have recently killed pets while merely questioning neighbors about a crime in the area, cutting across private property while in pursuit of a suspect, and after responding to a false burglar alarm. It doesn't matter if your dog is loose or leashed, or if you've posted "Beware of Dog Warnings." Last August in Colorado Springs, police entered a woman's house after her children let them in to look for a fugitive. The children locked the family dog in the bathroom with their mother, who was showering, and warned the police that the dog was defensive. The police opened the bathroom door anyway, the dog bit one of them, and they shot and killed it, inches from where the woman was showering. The fugitive wasn't in the home, and the owner said she's never heard of him.

If dangerous dogs are so common, one would expect to find frequent reports of vicious attacks on meter readers, postal workers, firemen, and delivery workers. But according to a spokesman from the United States Postal Service, serious dog attacks on mail carriers are vanishingly rare. Bites do happen, but postal workers are given training on how to distract dogs with toys, subdue them with voice commands, or, at worst, incapacitate them with Mace. Mail carriers are shown a two-hour video and given instruction on how to recognize and read a dog's body language, how to differentiate between aggressive charging and playful bounding, and how to tell a truly dangerous dog from a merely territorial one.

Few police departments offer this kind of training, though groups like the ASPCA and the Humane Society say they'd be more than happy to provide it. "New York is the only state I know of that mandates formalized training, and that's during academy," says Joseph Pentangelo, the ASPCA's assistant director for law enforcement, who also served 21 years with the NYPD before retiring in 2001. "There are some individual departments in other parts of the country that avail themselves of our training, but not many. Not enough." (Omaha, Nebraska, just recently started requiring training after 39 dog-shooting incidents in little more than a year.)

Even during highly charged police raids on houses guarded by aggressive dogs, it's hard to see how shooting them is the best option. A grazing shot will only make the dog angrier. A miss imperils other officers and innocent bystanders. During a terribly tragic drug raid in Lima, Ohio, last year, an officer shot and killed the suspect's two pit bulls shortly after the drug team entered the house. Another officer mistook the shots for hostile fire, and sprayed bullets into a bedroom, where a 26-year-old unarmed woman named Tarika Wilson had dropped to her knees, as ordered, while holding her 1-year-old son. Wilson died, the infant lost a hand.

"Putting aside the humanitarian concerns, shooting the dog just doesn't seem tactically expeditious," says Pentangelo. "Something like a tranquilizer dart would get the dog out of the way quickly without risking any collateral damage. I guess part of the problem is that pets just aren't viewed as real important."

There's no question that in some circumstances, a police officer may have no choice but to shoot an aggressive animal. The problem is that in too many of these cases, the use of lethal force isn't the last option taken, but the first.

Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason magazine and maintains a blog at TheAgitator.com. He's also the author of a 2006 Cato Institute study on the increasing use of paramilitary-style police raids.