Police Should Stop Shooting So Many Dogs

A. Barton Hinkle has a column on the tragic prevalence of police shooting dogs for little or no cause:

Across the country, both state laws and departmental policies seem to let police officers use deadly force as a first resort against family pets that often present little or no threat. In one infamous 2010 case from Missouri, an officer shot and killed a dog that had been subdued and held on a catch-pole. In another, an officer shot D.C. resident Marietta Robinson’s 13-year-old dog, Wrinkles, after Robinson had confined the dog to her bathroom.

Last year police officers chasing two suspects in Lake Charles,Louisiana, shot a dog named Monkey that barked at them. In Henrico,Va., last July, police officers went to the home of a homicide victim to notify the family of the slaying. When the family dog ran toward them, the officers shot and killed it. In Danville four years ago, a police officer shot and killed a 12-pound miniature dachshund. For growling at him.

Danville’s chief says the officer followed policy.

Police officers receive extensive training about the use of force when it is applied against humans. But how many departments provide training on dealing with pets? Very few, says the Humane Society. This despite the fact that, according to a Justice Department paper (“The Problem of Dog-Related Incidents and Encounters”), 39 percent of U.S. homes have dogs. More than half of dog owners “consider their dogs family members,” it continues, “and another 45.1 percent view them as companions or pets….”

Do we really need systematic training to combat a few isolated incidents, however unfortunate? The question rests on a false premise. Civil-liberties writer Radley Balko notes that over a nine-year period Milwaukee officers killed 434 dogs – about one every eight days. And that’s just one city. Across the country, according to Justice, “the majority of [police] shooting incidents involve animals, most frequently dogs.”

But surely those shootings occur because the animals themselves pose a serious threat, right? Nope. The Justice Department says not only that “dogs are seldom dangerous” but that even when they are, “the overwhelming majority of dog bites are minor, causing either no injury at all or injuries so minor that no medical care is required.” As Balko writes, “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.”

Yet serious – deadly – attacks against dogs are all too common. They shouldn’t be. And the solutions are obvious: Departmental policies, backed by state law, should require police officers to use lethal force against companion animals only as a last resort. Officers should receive training in safe and non-lethal methods of animal control – and in dog behavior: “An approaching dog is almost always friendly,” according to the Justice Department; “a dog who feels threatened will usually try to keep his distance.”

Radley Balko documents this problem in greater detail in his important new book, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. As he points out, dog shootings are part of a broader pattern of police using increasingly aggressive military-style tactics against people as well as pets, even when the circumstances don’t even come close to justifying it. He also notes that many police departments never punish officers who wrongfully shoot dogs even in the most egregious cases, such as this one.

Balko and Hinkle recommend improved training for police, similar to that which postal workers get. As Balko points out, US Postal Service employees often encounter dogs, but virtually always avoid injuries without resorting to violence against the animals. Such training should be coupled with serious sanctions for officers who shoot dogs without good cause. Ideally, they should be subject to criminal and civil penalties comparable to those imposed on civilians who shoot pets without justification. After all, it is reasonable to expect trained police officers to exercise better judgment and self-control than ordinary citizens when it comes to the use of force. People who can’t even live up to the standards expected of civilians probably should not be police officers in the first place.

In Virginia, for example, the law states that any person who “cruelly or unnecessarily beats, maims, mutilates, or kills any animal, whether belonging to himself or another” is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to 1 year of imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $2500. A second offense within five years of the first qualifies as a class 6 felony, punishable by a term of 1 to 5 years in prison. In addition, the owners of the slain dog can file a civil suit to get restitution from the shooter. People can reasonably disagree about whether Virginia’s penalties for such crimes are exactly right. But they strike me as at least roughly in the right ballpark for people who kill others’ beloved pets without cause.

Even if parity with the punishments imposed on civilians is not politically feasible, there should at least be some serious consequences for offending officers. These might include substantial suspensions without pay, dismissal from the force for repeat offenders, and payment of restitution to the pets’ owners (preferably without indemnification of the officer by the public fisc).

UPDATE: Many people, myself included, often feel greater visceral outrage when police use unnecessary force against dogs than against people, even though the latter is surely objectively worse. We cannot help the emotions we feel, but we should be aware of this bias. As I said in the post, unjustified police violence against dogs is part of a broader pattern of overly aggressive, military-style police tactics documented in Radley Balko’s book. In a future post, I will do a review of the book as a whole, and try to put the problem in broader perspective. At the same time, unjustified violence against dogs is a serious wrong in its own right and Balko, Hinkle, and others perform a valuable service in calling attention to this widespread problem.