Treasure Valley police work to curb dog shootings

Under fire from pet owners and even U.S. officials, local police departments join a move toward better training, nonlethal control methods

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comMarch 2, 2014 

  • OFFICER-INVOLVED DOG SHOOTINGS SINCE 2009

    Boise police: 5

    Garden City police: 1

    Meridian police: 0

    Nampa police: No department data available; at least 1 documented

    Caldwell police: No department data available; at least 2 documented

    Ada County sheriff: 2

    Canyon County sheriff: 0

    ISP (statewide): 0

    Sources: Treasure Valley police departments, sheriff’s offices, Idaho Statesman archives

  • KATY MOELLER

    Katy, who is on the breaking news team, also covers animal welfare issues. She got her first dog, an Australian Kelpie mix named Gracie, two years ago.

Several high-profile, officer-involved dog shootings in the Denver area a couple of years ago spurred one Republican legislator to take action.

“As I dug into the subject, I discovered over 40 cases where Colorado police officers shot nonthreatening dogs,” state Sen. David Balmer said last week.

Balmer said those cases were over the past five years and included only shootings that occurred at “nonviolent police calls.”

The 51-year-old lawmaker, who deployed to Bosnia and Afghanistan as an Army Reservist, became convinced that officer training in canine behavior and nonlethal tactics could reduce the number of shooting incidents and improve public safety. He worked with Colorado attorney Jennifer Edwards, who specializes in animal law, to draft the Dog Protection Act.

Passed without a dissenting vote, the bill was signed into law last May. It requires all law enforcement officers in Colorado to receive training by January 2015.

There’s no such movement afoot in Idaho, but the state’s largest police department recently decided to require all of its officers and field responders to do specialized training. Boise police will use a series of video trainings developed by the U.S. Department of Justice in collaboration with the Chicago Police Department and Safe Humane Chicago.

“It’s a community issue,” said BoiseOfficer Randy Arthur, who has been part of Boise’s K-9 unit for 18 years and is the trainer. “We do love dogs ... We have respect for dogs and their owners.”

Law enforcement officials encounter loose dogs and hostile family pets on almost a daily basis, and most do not end in a fatal shooting.

“You have a few incidents, and a lot of publicity. You also have incidents happening every day in which the police don’t go to those extreme measures,” said Dr. Jeff Rosenthal, executive director of the Idaho Humane Society.

The way these situations play out today reflects not only the multiplier effect of modern media and technology, but also the cultural shift in how Americans view their pets. Surveys show that more than half of pet owners consider their animals to be family members.

‘TOO BAD, SO SAD’

The absence of training, policies and protocols on handling dog encounters gave police carte blanche authority to shoot, said Edwards, who has been swamped by dog owners seeking representation in lawsuits.

“It’s fly by the seat of your pants, and if you shoot a dog — too bad, so sad,” she told the Statesman last week.

Edwards and other attorneys litigate officer-involved shootings as a violation of the Fourth Amendment — the taking of property without due process.

About 95 percent of officer-involved shootings are deemed justified by law enforcement agencies, according to Dr. Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of ASPCA Forensics Sciences and Anti-Cruelty Projects.

“The standard is very low,” said Lockwood, who has studied the issue for 15 years. “If you think the dog is about to bite you, you can shoot it.”

Untrained officers are likely to feel more threatened than those who are familiar with dog behavior and armed with tools and techniques to de-escalate situations, Lockwood said.

A 52-page U.S. Department of Justice report in 2011 stressed the need for agencies to train officers in nonlethal methods of dealing with dogs.

“Law enforcement officers must advance beyond automatically using their weapons when encountered by a dog,” Bernard K. Melekian, director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, wrote on the first page.

“There are many other ways to ensure public and officer safety through diffusing dog encounters.”

The report says the risks of failing to curb unnecessary officer-involved dog shootings include erosion of public trust and significant financial costs from judgments and settlements.

One of the cases cited in the report involved three California police departments (San Jose, Santa Clara and Gilroy), which paid $1.8 million in damages after they raided two homes owned by Hell’s Angels motorcycle club members. Three dogs were shot in the 1998 raid.

The dog killings were found to be a Fourth Amendment violation because police did not consider a nonlethal alternative while planning the raid.

A state law requiring all Tennessee highway patrol officers to be trained in dog behavior stemmed from a 2003 incident, when an officer shot a North Carolina family’s dog.

The dog got loose because officers didn’t heed the family’s request to shut their car door after they were handcuffed outside the car. The family was stopped after someone reported a possible robbery at a gas station; it turned out there was no robbery.

The family received $77,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

PET OWNERS NOT ROLLING OVER

The public is protesting in a variety of ways, including social media.

The Facebook page “Dogs Shot by Police” is a clearinghouse of articles, photos and videos. The site has posts on an Idaho case from February, when a Filer police officer shot and killed a family’s 7-year-old black Lab, Hooch, in the front yard of his home.

The shooting occurred as a birthday party for Rick Clubb’s 9-year-old son was winding down. A neighbor reported loose dogs, and Officer Tarek Hassani was dispatched.

Video of the incident shows Hassani yelling and kicking Hooch before he shot the dog.

“It was right outside my son’s bedroom. What if it had ricocheted through the window?” Clubb told the Twin Falls Times-News.

Collateral damage — life and property — is a concern in officer-involved shootings. Boisean Russell Lortz, whose dog was shot by police in January, was upset that his car was also hit. An officer fired five shots at Skrappy Doo, a 75-pound mutt; three hit the car and two hit the dog. Skrappy survived.

In Filer, Clubb conceded that he probably deserved to be cited. Shooting his therapy dog — he’s wheelchair-bound due to Parkinson’s disease — felt like too much.

The public response was swift.

A few days after the incident, several hundred protesters held a rally to call for Hassani’s firing, and a Facebook page called “Officer Hassani Get Out of Filer” was launched. The page has more than 12,000 likes now — about five times the number of people who live in the small town.

The dash camera video of the incident posted online by the Times-News has been viewed nearly 400,000 times. Viewers came to their own conclusions about whether it was justified.

“Anybody who knew anything about dogs wouldn’t have shot that dog,” Rosenthal said. “The dog had stopped and was backing up.”

Then he said: “It’s easy for us to play judge and jury.”

Video of an officer-involved shooting at a Nampa home in 2012 showed a pitbull-mastiff mix attacking an officer after running out through an open door. The dog’s owner, who was angry that his dog was shot to death, made a public apology to police after seeing the video.

“I would have probably done the same thing,” Anthony O’Hare said.

NO SPECIALIZED TRAINING

Treasure Valley law enforcement agencies provide little, if any, training on how to deal with the multiplicity of dog-related incidents on the job.

Arthur, the Boise K-9 trainer, said the four hours of dog-related training his department traditionally provided during its academy focused on the role of police dogs in law enforcement.

“We realize we can be more intentional about our training, and we are going to be,” Arthur said.

Meridian Police Deputy Chief Tracy Basterrechea said his department offered some dog-related training when it had animal control officers in-house. That changed when the city contracted with the Idaho Humane Society.

“We were just discussing having someone with IHS come out,” Basterrechea said. “It’s an issue that the public is concerned about, so we’re concerned about it.”

Caldwell Lt. Devin Riley said the department’s two animal control officers are the only ones who have received special training in handling dogs.

“To be honest, we should probably train on it more,” Riley said.

TOOLS, TECHNIQUES AND TIME

Police have many options when they encounter aggressive dogs: fire extinguishers, batons, pepper spray, Citronella spray, bullhorns, catchpoles and Tasers.

Each item has limitations, and many things factor into their effectiveness.

For example, Tasers are more difficult to use on dogs because they are a horizontal target, not a vertical one. Both darts have to hit the dog for it to work, and it can be tricky to land both.

Also, a stun gun’s effect on dogs is shorter than on humans. Some dogs become more agitated after being hit.

“Tasers are not a humane way to restrain or control a dog,” Rosenthal said. “But I have to admit, I prefer Tasers to firearms.”

Pepper spray is a recommended tool. It is effective on most dogs.

U.S. Postal Service workers, who are trained in how to handle aggressive dogs, are required to carry satchels and pepper spray, said Denver-based spokesman Brian Sperry. Despite carrying those tools, 16 Idaho letter carriers were bitten while delivering mail last year (the number of bites annually for the entire U.S. range into the thousands; nearly 6,000 in 2012).

Bites are a real concern for law enforcement. Ten officers with the Garden City Police Department have been bitten by dogs since 2006, according to Chief James Bensley.

When officers are bitten, it rarely makes the news. An Ada County sheriff’s deputy who was bitten in the wrist by a German shepherd-Labrador mix last weekend while on a call in Kuna was treated at local hospital.

A serious bite on the hand could be career-ending if an officer is unable to write and file reports, Boise Police Officer Steve Bonas said.

Fire extinguishers are very effective at repelling dogs.

“I’ve never had that not work,” said Boise Police Officer Shane Williams, who has been with the department 22 years.

But Williams and others said extinguishers are used primarily in planned encounters. They’re not at hand in sudden attacks.

DOES MORE TRAINING = FEWER SHOOTINGS?

By the end of this year, all Colorado law enforcement will have gone through training in dog behavior and handling, per the mandate of the Dog Protection Act. Departments may develop their own training, but a 19-member task force is creating a roughly three-hour Web-based program that will be free to all agencies (members of the task force are donating their time).

It will be a couple of years before officials can look at the data to see whether the training helped curb officer-involved dog shootings.

Edwards, the animal law attorney, said progress has been made.

“Clearly we’ve made some headway in raising awareness,” she said. “Colorado decided they were going to seek to make our law enforcement the most humane in the country.

“If one less dog is shot, then we’ve made a lot of headway.”

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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