The indie production company Ozymandias Media is asking for help to fund a documentary looking at the issue of police killing dogs. They've just launched a Kickstarter campaign with a compelling eight minute preview, which you can watch below. (Disclosure: I'm interviewed in the preview, and would presumably appear in the documentary. I also plan to donate. But that's the extent of my involvement in the project.)
I've written quite a bit on this problem. It has become something of a pet issue. (Sorry. This post needed a little levity.) It's difficult to say for certain if these shootings are happening more frequently, or if we're just more aware of them now because of social media and the ubiquity of smart phone and surveillance cameras. There's just no comprehensive data on cops shooting dogs. But several older police officers I interviewed for my recent book told me they're shocked by how often they're seeing these stories. Some said they couldn't recall a single such incident over the course of their careers in which they or a colleague had no choice but to kill a dog.
Last year, J.L. Greene and I looked at 24 cop-shoots-dog cases from recent news reports. We called the relevant police agency from each story to inquire about whether officers at those agencies receive any training on how to interact with dogs. Groups like the Humane Society and ASPCA offer such training to any police department in the country -- training on topics like how to read a dog's body language, how to distract an aggressive dog, and more generally how to handle interactions with dogs without killing them. Of the 13 police agencies that returned our calls, just one said they offered anything of the sort. Contrast that to the U.S. Postal Service, which gives its mail carriers regular training on interacting with animals. A U.S.P.S. spokesman also told me that there are vanishing few dog attacks on postal workers that require hospitalization.
But this is about more than just a lack of training. The former law enforcement officer interviewed in the preview video below blames pet owners and the lack of training, but puts little blame on the officers who are actually killing these dogs. There's a particularly striking moment in the video where he says that most cops don't want to kill dogs, "But they have no other choice, because nobody's told them anything different than to just shoot the dog."
Think about that for a moment. He's essentially saying that for some cops, the default reaction is to kill at the slightest provocation -- that they need to be told not to kill if we expect them to show restraint.
I can certainly conceive of some scenarios in which a large, aggressive, unchained dog might post a legitimate threat to a police officer (although, as the Kickstarter page points out, the number of documented cases in which a police officer was killed by a dog is approximately zero). But we've recently seen stories of cops killing leashed dogs, fenced dogs, chained dogs, dogs captured on restraint poles, and dogs that, at worst, are capable of inflicting a minor break in the flesh. In just the last few years, cops have killed chihuahuas, Jack Russell terriers, dachshunds, and countless other small breeds. In nearly all of these cases, the officers' actions were later determined to have been justified.
When police departments don't give any training on dog interaction, and then decide that dog shootings are justified based only on officers' subjective statement that he feared for his safety (regardless of whether or not that fear was rational), the inevitable result is that any incident of any cop shooting any dog will always be considered justified. For pet owners, this comes off as a pretty callous. Officer safety -- protection even from irrational, perceived threats of minor injuries from small dogs -- will always justify an officer's decision to kill the family pet.
In an interview with me for my book, Norm Stamper, the former police chief of Seattle and a 28-year cop, said he thinks the phenomenon began with a legitimate problem -- that some drug dealers use vicious, powerful dogs to guard their supply -- but that it has since gotten way out of hand. Or, put another way, it's yet another unintended consequence of the drug war.
"Among other things, it really shows a lack of imagination. These guys think that the only solution to a dog that’s yapping or charging is shooting and killing it. That’s all they know. It goes with this notion that police officers have to control every situation, to control all the variables. That’s an awesome responsibility, and if you take it on, you’re caving to delusion. You no longer exercise discrimination or discretion. You have to control, and the way you control is with authority, power, and force. With a dog, the easiest way to take control is to simply kill it. I mean, especially if there are no consequences for doing so.”
In a separate interview, Stamper added, "I think all of this drug-war imagery has produced a mentality that didn't used to exist. 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."
Former drug cop Russ Jones put it more bluntly: "I guess somewhere along the line a cop shot a dog under questionable circumstances and got away with it. Word got out, and now it seems like some cops are just looking for reasons to take a shot at a dog. Maybe it just comes down to that -- we can get away with it, therefore we do it.”
Judging from the preview, the documentary looks like it will be probing and critical, but fair enough to give law enforcement sources the opportunity to present their side of the issue. If this is an issue that troubles you, you might consider making a donation to fund the effort to bring it to a larger audience.
A warning, though: The video below contains graphic video of law enforcement officers shooting dogs. It's terribly disturbing.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to give my dog a hug.
HuffPost writer and investigative reporter Radley Balko is also the author of the new book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.
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