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Redrum: the backwards world of officer-involved dog shootings

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Fifteen minutes ago, a dog was shot and killed by a police officer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, during the execution of a search warrant. Two hours prior, another dog was shot by an officer in Florida. According to the more passionate critics of officer-involved canine shootings, a dog is shot and killed by a police officer every ninety-eight minutes. However, there is no database, no pool of statistics or way to calculate the facts of officer-involved canine shootings. In a world where law enforcement (LE) has restricted its officers (LEO’s) to the point where they can fire on a human only if said human is not just armed and dangerous but so close they can practically feel spittle on their skin and the metal of the barrel on their cheek, LEO’s have been given nearly free rein when it comes to shooting dogs. Are we in the midst of a LE-backed dog-shooting epidemic?

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Back on the 21st of March, 2011, a LEO by the name of Josh Boren reported to his supervisor that he was “in trouble.” Officer Boren had come across a stray dog, and instead of following protocol, which at the time involved turning the stray over to the South County Animal Shelter – and which he knew very well, having worked as an animal control officer – he pulled his .22 rifle out of his squad car and began taking pot shots at the terrified dog. One round ricocheted off the passenger-side door of his vehicle, and the resulting report conveniently left out the dog’s fate, including whether or not it was hit by any of the rounds. As a result of the shooting, Officer Boren was suspended without pay for thirty-six hours. A reprimand was added to his file saying there was “not enough evidence to support criminal charges” while admitting the incident indicated a “serious behavioral problem.” Sadly, the story does not end there.

On the 16th of January, 2014, Officer Boren again fired his weapon against regulations. This time, however, he shot and killed his wife, their two small children, and his mother-in-law. A friend of his late wife’s said Kelly Boren wanted a divorce and told her Officer Boren had “rage” problems. But before they could talk about it in greater detail, Kelly Boren was dead at her husband’s hand. Three years had passed since Boren shot at a frightened stray dog on the street. Three years and he turned his rage to humans – to his entire family.

Although Boren’s actions are an extreme example, the fact remains that there seems to be an escalation in officer-involved shootings of dogs. In February of 2013 in Fresno County, California, five dogs labeled as pit bulls – an inaccurate, generalized label in many cases - were dropped off at the local animal shelter. When a LEO present found out the veterinarian in charge of euthanasias would be unable to put the dogs down until the next day, he took matters into his own hands. Right there inside the shelter, the officer methodically shot each dog, much to the shock of the employees on scene. In Colorado, a three-legged dog named Chloe ran away from the woman who was dog-sitting her for a neighbor and proceeded to relive her own version of “Born Free” in the neighborhood, where she was a well-known and cheerful presence. Both a LEO and an animal control officer (ACO) came on the scene, and the LEO responded by immediately tasering the dog, who, terrified, attempted to hobble away from him. The ACO then managed to loop a catch pole around Chloe’s neck, and that should have been the end of it. But much to the horror of the ACO holding the pole, and the incapacitated dog, the officer then shot the defenseless, frightened, and already-tasered three-legged dog four times, killing her on the spot.

One case actually resulting in a fairly length investigation – largely due to public outcry and threats – is Officer Tarek Hassani’s, in Filer, Idaho. In February of 2014, Hassani responded to a complaint of loose dogs at a private residence where a little boy was having a birthday party. Rather than honking his horn, activating his lights, or otherwise attempting to alert the homeowner to his presence, Hassani walked onto the property kicking and shouting at the dogs. The dogs, seen on his dash cam, are barking, not attacking. They appear to have been warning their people that a strange man with a drawn weapon was walking into their front yard while kicking and screaming at them. One of the dogs, Hooch, a black Lab, was the homeowner’s service dog for his Parkinson’s, and he is the dog the officer shot to death there in the snow. The dog’s tortured cries can clearly be heard in the footage. Another police department (PD) investigated, and although they asked why Hassani did not either call for backup or at least attempt to contact the homeowners when he saw the two Labs in the front yard, they recently reinstated him. Citizens of Filer, outraged by Hassani’s return to the force, filed a petition to remove Mayor Rick Hall from office, along with all four members of the city council. The first group of petitions did collect enough signatures, which means if the citizens can collect at least 201 more signatures within seventy-five days, a recall election will be held. As of April 2014, Hassani is back to work and the people of Filer are collecting those 201 signatures.

Not even a family pet playing with one of their human children is safe. In Memphis, Tennessee, in October of 2012, a one-year-old Labrador Retriever playing with his family’s nine-year-old child, was shot while right next to the child. According to accounts, the officer approached while the Lab, Pepper, was playing with the child in the family’s front yard. Without saying a word, the officer drew his weapon and shot Pepper. Thus wounded, Pepper attempted to run away, and the officer chased him down and shot him again, this time fatally.

Owning a dog and a home security system is also cause for concern. When an Oakland, California family’s house’s burglar alarm went off in the fall of 2010, they never expected the police response in their absence to result in loss of a different kind. Officer Victor Garcia was a responding officer, and as officers checked the residence, the homeowner’s yellow Lab, Gloria, wandered out the open back door. Garcia claimed Gloria “ran at him”, so he shot her to death. However, those who knew Gloria said the 11-year-old Lab was more than slightly harmless and unthreatening. Gloria was the second Oakland PD animal shooting in a short timeframe, also. Just a month prior, officers shot a deer in a citizen’s backyard. Those officers were actually punished – one was demoted while the other was suspended. In Gloria’s case, the police chief called it “unfortunate” and moved on. And when the family returned from running errands that day, they found a note on their front door saying Gloria had behaved in a threatening manner, so the police killed her. Unfortunately, such thoughtless notes happen more than one might believe.

It may seem unsurprising to find that these shootings sometimes result in lawsuits, but sometimes it’s the officer doing the suing. This time, the shooting took place in Alabama, and once again, the local PD did nothing. Officer Mike Azwell, a motorcycle cop, was taking a break when, he reported, a big, brown pit bull-looking dog and a white pit bull dog, charged him. The purebred chocolate female Lab, Sonic, was the one he shot to death. The other dog was a little white Boxer, not a pit bull, and had recently given birth. A number of witnesses said they heard only gunshots and no growling or barking. And even more witnesses, including the manager of Sonic’s long-time veterinary clinic, stated the eight-year-old dog was overweight and suffered from severe hip dysplasia. Due to the crippling pain in her hips, Sonic, they said, was unable to “run at” or “charge” anyone, and due to her sweet nature, she never would, anyway. One of those neighbors bearing witness was Deborah Bosch, who made it quite clear she felt Officer Azwell was wrong to kill the elderly purebred Lab. Azwell is now suing Bosch, claiming he is suffering from “loss of sleep” and “emotional problems” due to Bosch’s trying to have him held accountable for the shooting. Perhaps Sonic’s grieving owners are suffering from grief and trauma as well.

And when it comes to personal trauma, there is the case of two dogs shot during a search. Police knew they were entering a potentially dangerous situation, first because they were searching the residence for a firearm allegedly used in the commission of a crime by a relative of the homeowner, and second because there were four possibly dangerous dogs in the home. Officers also knew there were children in the home. A few things went wrong, from the fact that they were meant to knock at the door and serve the warrant but instead, as one report put it, “barged in,” to the way they handled the dogs. Immediately upon entering the residence, an officer shot and killed one dog, Kano, right where he lay on the living room floor. Another officer, identified as Chad Fuchs, entered the kitchen where the homeowner’s three-year-old daughter was eating breakfast. At the toddler’s feet, under the kitchen table, was Remy, a German Shepherd-Pit Bull mix. Without hesitation, Officer Fuchs fired “multiple” hollow-point rounds into Remy, killing the dog, who had been hoping for a breakfast handout. The little girl sitting with Remy was splattered with her pet’s blood and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is now seeing a therapist. After an investigation, the PD admitted they could have handled it better and made a monetary payment to the family. And the firearm the police believed their suspect had left in the residence? It was nowhere to be found, and the homeowners were not charged with anything.

Owner stupidity is also not an excuse for executing a dog. During a robbery call, where local LEO’s had barricaded a road in June of 2013, Leon Rosby was out walking his Rottweiler – on a leash – behaved foolishly, and paid the ultimate price. While police were trying to force the suspect from a building, the man used his cell phone to videotape the goings-on while also playing the radio in his nearby rental car. After apprehending the suspect, officers requested he put his Rotty in his car. He complied, but left the windows down due to the potentially-deadly summer heat. When the officer handcuffed him, the dog, Max, became agitated and jumped through the open window. A second officer dealt with the barking dog by immediately shooting him. Another bystander, who was also, ironically, videotaping with his cell phone (but, unlike 52-year-old Rosby, that amateur cameraman was not arrested), caught the incident on camera. Max did not die immediately, and can be seen lying on the pavement, screaming and crying in pain and terror, hind legs kicking, as he died.

Whether or not we are facing a serious problem with law enforcement officers (LEO’s) shooting and killing dogs is a matter of some controversy and debate. Due to the lack of an information database and the spotty reporting of the shootings, it is impossible to say how often these incidents actually occur. It is, however, difficult to argue that there seems to be both an increase in the frequency of the shootings and a double standard when it comes to who does the shooting. In March of 2014, a family pet attacked one of the children in the home, and the child’s father responded by fatally shooting the dog, a Doberman. Police, responding to reports of shots fired, immediately charged the protective father with animal cruelty and unlawful discharge of a firearm. And police in Washington, D.C., debated about the charges against a man who saved a child’s life by shooting and killing one of a pack of dogs that was mauling the child in the street. And yet when an officer shoots a dog, the local PD’s have a serious tendency to not bat an eye. Countless interviews have taken place where superior officers tell the media an aggressive dog should simply be shot. And their idea of what an aggressive dog actually is seems to be skewed.

There is a significant difference between a vicious, charging dog and a barking one that is alerting its owner to the presence of an intruder. Countless dogs have been shot during the execution of search warrants, warrant services, and officer responses to various private-residence reports, from whooping burglar alarms to pursuits across private properties. Many of the dogs shot seem to be on or near their own property, and if a LEO shot a human with the wanton disregard for life that they use on canines, the entire nation would be in an uproar.

Perhaps officers need training in how to read canine body language. An angry-appearing dog can be quite intimidating, but does not immediately make murder an appropriate response. In fact, dog-naïve officers might be surprised to find just how effective even a firmly bellowed “No!” can be. Too many of the dogs shot are being killed in the rather half-hearted defense of their homes – barking, but not advancing, or, worse yet, happy to have the company, or even while backing or running away. Dogs are also being shot by one officer while another is wrestling their owner to the ground, and although it is easy to jump to a stereotype and assume that the dog must be as bad as its owner, it is not necessarily accurate. Most dog owners are well aware how their dogs would react if a strange person entered their home and handcuffed them. The fact that the stranger would be wearing a uniform certainly would not matter one iota to your dogs as they witness what they see as an assault of their owner. One outdoor dog was shot when his owner’s elderly father tried to keep him inside so officers could search the yard for a fleeing suspect, and when the dog excitedly – not aggressively – slipped back outside, they shot him to death.

Not to say, of course, there are no justified shootings of dangerous dogs. It is absolutely true situations exist in which an officer is completely right to protect themselves by fatally firing on an advancing dog. And much like the rule of 21 feet when it comes to attackers with knives, there is only a finite amount of time to respond to a canine threat as well. But when training in a particular area is lacking, the instinctual response tends to be neutralizing the threat – permanently. Why has it not occurred to anyone that if they must shoot a dog, why not simply fire at their legs, much the same way they would at a human’s legs in the same situation? Police are drilled endlessly about how to handle shooting at people, and deadly force is never meant to be their one and only response. But when it comes to dogs, the death sentence seems to have become the only option.

Although local PD’s would doubtlessly argue that training officers in canine body language and the proper use of firearms when dealing with dogs would be cost-prohibitive (and not what they consider the best use of their resources), it is something to consider. Perhaps if local, qualified dog trainers volunteered their services for weekend sessions, complete with tests, the cost would be negated enough for departments to begin to see dog-specific officer training as a viable option. Of course, training is not the only issue.

Discipline matters. If there was more at stake when an officer shot a dog, they might think twice before pulling the trigger, or at least before aiming for a fatal shot. It is common knowledge animal cruelty laws are disturbingly lax in most states, and that laxity not only extends to but entirely envelopes officer-involved shootings of dogs. How rational is it, really, to arrest and charge a civilian for shooting a dog who is in the process of publically mauling a child but doing nothing more than shrugging their shoulders when an officer shoots a dog who dares to bark (or, heaven forbid, jump up and down while wagging its tail) when said officer enters the dog’s residence. Yes, bad dogs exist, but so do bad shootings.

Chloe, Pepper, Hooch, Cali, Shiner Bock – these are just a few of the dogs who have fairly recently been shot and killed by police officers. As Officer Boren proved, disregard for the reality that taking a dog’s life does matter can be a sign of a greater behavioral issue in certain cases. For another example we have the male officer who used a shotgun to kill a fleeing dog, exclaiming how “awesome” it was the way her collar flew off when the blast tore through her neck, severing her jugular artery. Those who argue police should not be wasting their time debating whether or not to shoot a dog would be appalled if that same disregard – and, often, humor - was applied to people. And those who say dogs do not have the same value as people, making their shootings a moot point, simply prove the point regarding lack of concern for canine well-being. No, dogs are not people, and yes, there are occasions when an officer is justified in shooting a dangerous canine - and dangerous humans. But on an increasing basis, an officer discharging his or her weapon into someone’s pet does so without hesitation because they are well aware of reality: more often than not, animal cruelty charges for the shooting of a dog are for civilians, not officers. Perhaps it is time for some training – and a dose of accountability.

Author’s Note: As a firearms aficionado and dog lover, I do believe there are instances where there is no choice but to discharge your weapon at a truly vicious dog. However, cases of dogs being shot and killed by law enforcement officers seem to be escalating at an alarming rate, and a great deal of those cases appear to have been avoidable. THIS ARTICLE AND SITE ARE ABSOLUTELY NOT TO BE USED AS AN OFFICER-BASHING OR NAME-CALLING FORUM.

CLAIMED: This work is protected by Copyscape: DO NOT COPY.

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