Can Police Stop Killing Dogs?

As with other police encounters involving civilians and what the public perceives as bad outcomes, many dog shooting incidents are captured on video and posted on the Internet. Some officers have even been fired for shooting dogs.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

Photo: Mark W. ClarkPhoto: Mark W. Clark

The weekend after Thanksgiving 2012 Gary Branson went out of town so he had his cousin in the Denver suburb of Commerce City, Colo., watch his four-year-old mixed breed pooch named Chloe.

Somehow that Saturday afternoon, Chloe got loose while the cousin was away and started roaming around the area, enjoying a rare burst of freedom. A cross-street neighbor noticed the unfamiliar medium-sized dog, with the big head, and the short-haired coat, and called 911 to say a "vicious pit bull" was "running at large."

Commerce City police officers Robert Price and Edgar Castillo, and animal control officer Arica Bores responded to the complaint. About half an hour later, they had cornered Chloe back into the garage, and she wasn't happy about it.

How the dog behaved during this confrontation is in dispute. But what is known is that Officer Price used a TASER to stun Chloe, knocking her down. She got back up and he tried to stun her again. But Chloe was not onboard with another TASER ride, so she ran toward the people and the door.

Animal control officer Bores looped a catch pole rope around Chloe's neck just as she broke out of the garage. Then as Bores fought to control the dog, Price drew his duty pistol and shot Chloe dead.

Repercussions from Price's shots are still echoing in Colorado. The last few minutes of the Chloe shooting were videoed by the son of the neighbor who had called in the complaint about the roaming "vicious dog." And that video was posted online and went viral.

Dog lovers and animal rights activists were outraged. There were "Justice for Chloe" protests in front of the Commerce City PD headquarters.

Prosecutors charged Officer Price with felony animal cruelty. Charges that didn't stick. He was acquitted at trial.

But that wasn't the end of Price's legal problems. A lawsuit was filed last fall by Chloe's owner against Commerce City, Officer Price, Officer Castillo, and animal control officer Bores.

Nor were the effects of the Chloe incident confined to local courts. The incident attracted so much political attention that Colorado now has a new law requiring that law enforcement officers be trained in how to handle dog encounters. How that law will be implemented remains to be seen. One Colorado police chief contacted for this article said his agency has not received any training guidelines.

An Epidemic

While the Chloe incident is one of the best-known cases of police officers shooting and killing a companion canine, it is not an anomaly.

No one keeps records on how many privately owned dogs are shot and killed each year by American law enforcement officers so there are no hard figures. But a perusal of the Web and social media will tell you it's a lot.

Laurel Matthews, a supervisory program specialist with the Department of Justice's Community Oriented Policing Services (DOJ COPS) office, says it's an awful lot. She calls fatal police vs. dogs encounters an "epidemic" and estimates pet dogs are killed each day by law enforcement officers.

That's an alarming statistic. But it's impossible to prove.

It is, however, a solid fact that the attention to these incidents is increasing. As with other police encounters involving civilians and what the public perceives as bad outcomes, many dog shooting incidents are captured on video and posted on the Internet, Facebooked, and tweeted. The people whose dogs are killed in such incidents also seem more likely to lodge complaints, contact the media, and even sue than they did in the past. Some officers have even been fired for shooting dogs.

A PR Nightmare

It is often repeated in law enforcement circles that shooting a dog brings more heat down on an agency than an officer-involved shooting of a human. Whether that's true depends on the justification for shooting the human. But many, many Americans have dogs and love dogs, so they don't take kindly to the idea of officers committing what some activists call "puppycide."

And what makes pet owners most angry is that dogs are often killed by officers during encounters that the public considers to be routine such as false burglar alarms at houses, following up on reports, and calls about nuisance barking. One pet dog was shot by an officer while he delivered a death notification to the dog's owner.

Los Angeles-based attorney and former law enforcement officer Mildred K. "Missy" O'Linn, who defends officers and agencies in civil suits, says agencies need to be aware of how explosive community response to a dog shooting can be. "The public cares about these kinds of incidents on a magnitude that is sometimes lost on the law enforcement community," she says.

O'Linn adds that before agencies dismiss dog shootings as no big concern, they should consider the example of the Hawthorne (Calif.) Police Department. Officers from the southeast Los Angeles County agency shot and killed a pet Rottweiler on a public street in front of the owner this summer. And the agency has experienced a lot of grief because of it. "The City of Hawthorne had its network server shut down by Anonymous," O'Linn says.  

Salt Lake City is also experiencing the pain of a lethal dog shooting by police.

In June, Officer Brett Olsen of the Salt Lake City Police Department shot and killed a 110-pound Weimaraner named Geist while searching for a missing 3-year-old child in a residential neighborhood. The dog was behind a fence and Olsen wanted to search the yard for the child.

Olsen had been told that the child would not respond to calls, so he did not speak when opening the gate. He was then surprised by Geist and killed the dog. Salt Lake City's Civilian Review Board cleared Olsen of any wrongdoing and noted that he had been involved in the search for another child years earlier and that child's murdered body had been found eight days later in a neighbor's basement.

Despite such extenuating circumstances and the exigency of the child search—even though the missing child was found safe at home—the Salt Lake City PD has endured a firestorm since the incident. Hundreds of people have protested the shooting and the lack of disciplinary action against Olsen, and the agency has received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls demanding the officer be fired. Geist's owner has refused any settlement that does not include the officer's termination and has threatened litigation.

The Fourth Amendment

Legal specialists won't say that the number of lawsuits against agencies over dog shootings is on the rise. But they will admit there is anecdotal evidence of that being the case.

"In the past I was certain there was no way that anybody would be able to succeed in a civil rights case involving a constitutional violation as a result of shooting a dog because dogs don't have constitutional rights," says Laura Scarry, a Chicago-based attorney who represents law enforcement officers and agencies and trains officers in lawsuit prevention. "In the last 10 to 20 years, plaintiffs' attorneys have been suing officers and agencies on the grounds that killing a dog is a Fourth Amendment seizure."

And they have plenty of appellate court ammunition to do so, according to Charlotte-based attorney Scott MacLatchie, who represents law enforcement agencies and officers in civil suits. "Six (out of 11) federal circuit courts of appeal have ruled that the killing of a pet does represent a Fourth Amendment seizure," he says.

The floodgates on lawsuits over police shooting dogs opened in 1998. That's when 90 officers from multiple California agencies executed a search warrant on a San Jose Hells Angels clubhouse and several homes of the outlaw motorcycle gang's members. During entry into those homes, the officers involved shot and killed a Rottweiler and two Bullmastiffs. The officers were searching for a videotape that could be used as evidence in a murder prosecution. They didn't find it.

The dog owners sued. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals let the suit go forward. And then in 2005 after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the Ninth Circuit decision, Santa Clara County settled for $990,000 and the City of San Jose settled for $800,000. The cities of Santa Clara and Gilroy had already paid total damages of about $50,000.

Of course not every lawsuit stemming from a dog shooting by officers nets nearly 2 million bucks for the plaintiffs like the Hells Angels settlements. But six-figure damages are not unheard of, and even nominal payoffs to the plaintiff can balloon when the defendant officers and agencies have to pay attorney fees for the winners. It should also be noted that some officers have been slapped with punitive damages in dog shooting suits. And punitive damages are usually paid by the officers personally, unlike compensatory damages, which are often covered by the agency's insurance.

Training Materials

Social media and community outrage and growing fears of litigation are just some of the reasons that law enforcement agencies, use-of-force experts, and animal protection organizations are working to find solutions to the officer vs. dog problem. Many think part of the solution is better officer training.

That's why three years ago DOJ COPS published a training booklet that is available free to law enforcement agencies titled "The Problem of Dog-Related Incidents and Encounters." And last year Safe Humane Chicago and the National Canine Research Council produced four approximately 10-minute-long training videos titled "Police & Dog Encounters" that are now available on YouTube and distributed by DOJ COPS. The four videos cover assessing a dog's body language, tactical options for dealing with dogs, and the potential legal ramifications of shooting dogs.

Negotiating with a Dog

The body language section of the "Police & Dog Encounters" videos is designed to teach officers how to quickly size up the potential threat presented by dogs. And dog behaviorists and police trainers say you can't just eyeball a dog, decide that it looks like a pit bull or Rottweiler, and decide it's dangerous.

In the body language section of the "Police & Dog Encounters" videos, dog trainer and author Brian Kilcommons works with four Chicago PD officers on how to approach dogs that are not very happy about having strangers in their territory. "Dogs don't lie," Kilcommons says on the video. "They tell you what they are thinking." That may be true, but you have to know how to interpret what the dog is saying.

Often what dogs are saying to police officers is, "Where did you come from?" "I don't want you here." "You scare me."

Kilcommons and other dog behavior experts contacted for this article say the first thing an officer about to enter a property should check for is signs of a dog on that property. These include "Beware of Dog" signs, worn running paths next to the fence, dog leads, dog toys, food dishes, and water bowls.

If officers see these things and they are not trying to stealth their way onto the property and into the dwelling, experts say it's time to make some noise. "You don't want to surprise an animal. A startled dog will turn around and come after you," says Jim Osorio, a former officer who has trained thousands of officers through his Texas-based company Canine Encounters Law Enforcement Training.

Kilcommons says officers have to remember they are entering the dog's territory and the dog's job is to defend that territory. "It's the officer's body language that sets most dogs off," he explains. "Police are taught to take control, be assertive, and stand there and be ready. And the more you push like that, the more you stare at the dog, the worse it gets."

ASPCA dog behavior expert Dr. Randall Lockwood says officers dealing with a dog in a non-exigent circumstance should consider the situation like a hostage negotiation. "What the dog wants is for you to go away. What you want to do is stay, do what you need to do, and then leave. You and the dog need to reach agreement on the terms by which that will take place," he explains.

Canine behavior experts advise officers to avoid eye contact and assume a bladed and relaxed stance when approaching a dog for the first time. "Turn sideways," says Kilcommons, who has trained more than 40,000 dogs. "When you confront a dog head-on and look him in the eye, it's a challenge. You are basically telling that dog that you want to fight. Some dogs will react and bark and go into a state of anxiety when they see that. Others will accept your challenge and think, 'Fighting sounds like a good idea. Here I come.'"

Deterrence Tools

Police trainers and dog experts say that only in the most extreme circumstances should drawing your duty pistol be your first reaction to a hostile dog.

"You have to do some critical thinking," says retired officer and use-of-force expert Dr. Ron Martinelli, who has testified in dog shooting lawsuits, both for and against officers. "You have to ask yourself, 'Is there any other way of getting around this? Can I get around this dog or remove this dog from the picture without shooting it?' And if the dog is presenting a clear threat, you have to ask what you can do rather than shoot it to accomplish your mission. Can you bring in animal control? Can you ask the dog's owner to lock it up? Can you use OC? Can you use a TASER?"

Some experts say one of the first things an officer should try with an unfriendly dog is to throw a stick or ball. Pets will often chase it. Another option is dog treats. And Lockwood says officers can at least try saying, "Sit," in a firm, but friendly voice. "Most pet dogs at least know that command, and sometimes when they hear it, they will just stop and kind of look at you," he explains.

Kilcommons recommends that before using weapons, officers should try to shield themselves from charging dogs with objects like garbage cans, chairs, and even clipboards. He says another option is to pull the baton not to strike the dog but to deflect a bite. "Dogs bite the first things they come in contact with," he explains.

Some officers have had success using fire extinguishers as deterrence weapons against dogs. Lockwood, who trains police officers through an ASPCA Northeast program, says the fire extinguisher is an almost perfect dog repellent. "It's very noisy and very cold. It tastes bad. But it doesn't do any damage to the dog," he says. "I've talked to many, many officers who have used fire extinguishers, and I have never heard of a case where they didn't work."

Kilcommons argues that fire extinguishers, while effective, can be unwieldy. He prefers boat horns. "There are very few dogs that can stand up to a boat horn," he explains. "Use the big boy, the one they can hear for three miles," he adds.

Patrol Tools

Fire extinguishers and boat horns are not on the belts of patrol officers, but OC canisters and TASERs are.

The Baltimore Police Department conducted a study of OC effectiveness on dogs. OC was sprayed at hostile dogs from a distance of three to eight feet during 20 incidents, and it was effective nearly 100% of the time. "Halt, the pepper spray carried by letter carriers, is only one-tenth the strength of police OC, and Halt works," says Lockwood.

Still, many officers believe OC to be useless against a hostile canine. Some say they were taught and are still being taught this myth by police trainers. It's actually tear gas that is ineffective on dogs.

Martinelli warns, however, that dogs react to OC differently than humans. "There's no pain on the skin because of their fur," he explains. "Animals with fur get over pepper spray in a couple of minutes, and then they come looking for the guy that sprayed them."

TASERs are a powerful less-lethal weapon for use on both humans and animals, but shooting a dog with a TASER is very different from tasing a human. The dog is smaller and has a horizontal body mass. So use-of-force trainers say officers should cant their TASERs "gangsta style" parallel to the ground in order to stun a dog. Also, because of the size of the dog, TASER shots should not be attempted at a range of more than 10 feet.

Dep. Dustin Nelson of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, who oversees dog encounter training for his station, believes shooting dogs with TASERs may not be a very sound use of force. "The purpose of tasing somebody is to restrain them. What are you going to do when you tase a dog, handcuff him?"

No Other Option

Unfortunately, all the training in the world will not end all shootings of dogs by police officers. There are times when there is no other option and all but the most radical animal activists realize this is the case.

Kilcommons says that like some humans, "some dogs just are not wired right."

And former officer now attorney O'Linn raises tactical concerns that would prevent an officer from choosing a less-lethal, take-it-slow approach during a hostile dog encounter. She uses a foot pursuit scenario as an example. "Officers have to be concerned about the tactical disadvantage they could be placed at if, as they are dealing with the dog, the bad guy takes advantage and tries to hurt them or someone else," she explains.

Matthews stresses that DOJ COPS is in no way advocating that officers compromise their personal safety to save dogs. "We just want to give officers options so they don't have to resort to the immediate use of deadly force," she says.

Other dog advocates agree that while they don't want officers to shoot dogs without reason, they understand that sometimes it's necessary.

Cynthia Bathurst is the founder of Safe Human Chicago and a noted animal advocate. She was one of the driving forces behind the production of the "Police & Dog Encounters" videos.

In 2010 Bathurst helped train more than 6,000 officers of the Chicago Police Department on police vs. dog encounters, participating in roll call briefings for all three shifts. She says one night after the training two tactical officers came back into the station an hour later looking distressed and told her they had to tell her something.

"I feel so guilty,"' one of them told Bathurst. "We were chasing this guy and somebody told us there were no dogs in the yard that the guy had just run into. So I jumped over the fence, and two big dogs, teeth bared, came running at me. I tried to get back over the fence before they reached me, but I couldn't. I had to shoot and kill one of the dogs and the other ran away."

Bathurst says she looked that officer in the eye and said, "Good for you. You did the right thing. I'm not going to second-guess something like that. You kept your partner and yourself safe, and that's what you are supposed to do."


The Plight of the "Pit Bull"

Dog Owners Can Prevent Violent Encounters Between Police and Their Pets

A Use-of-Force Continuum for Dealing with Dogs

Planned Operations and Dogs

Sued for Shooting a Dog

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