Every week in cities and towns across the United States, police officers shoot and kill an owner’s dog. Many times a dog poses a legitimate threat to the safety of the officer or the public, but too often cops show little discretion and butcher an innocent pet when it could have been avoided.
While nation-wide statistics of cop on dog shootings are difficult to find, it is evident that there is a problem. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a 2008 lawsuit revealed that Milwaukee police shot more than 400 dogs over a 10 year period. The Village Voice reported 30 incidences of New York City Police Department officers shooting dogs in 2006. One expert with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he sees between 250 and 300 such cases reported in the media every year but estimates another thousand go unreported.
There is no doubt that this trend is disturbing. After all, it is every dog owner’s worst nightmare to see their beloved pet gunned down by those who are supposed to protect and serve. However the unspoken tragedy in many of these cases has more to do with our civil liberties and constitutional rights.
A review of several police on dog shooting cases over the past several weeks demonstrates a general disregard in our law enforcement and judicial systems for citizens’ Fourth Amendment right to “be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Many of these stories are enough to bring dog-lovers to tears.
Last Monday in Spartanburg, SC a police officer shot and killed a 35-pound dog that was tied to his owner’s front porch. According to examiner.com the officer arrived at the wrong house and was there to serve child support papers on a man who had not lived at the residence for years. “He really had no choice,” Sherriff Chuck Wright told Channel 7 of the officer who walked past a “Beware of Dog” sign before shooting and killing the small chained dog. The officer will not receive any disciplinary action.
On August 25 Rita Hairston of Buffalo, NY returned home to find that her house had been broken into and that her 10 year-old Labrador Retriever, Prada (pictured above), was missing. She soon discovered a search warrant, bullet holes and a pool of blood in her ransacked home. According to WKBW Buffalo, the warrant was for the address of another property that Hairston owned. That house was rented by her daughter’s boyfriend, Lance Thompson. The police claim they had probable cause to search Hairston’s home because they believed that Thompson, who was suspected of dealing cocaine, sometimes used her home to conduct illegal activities. No drugs were found in Hairston’s home during the raid that killed Prada.
On August 23 in Riverside, CA a police officer shot and killed a family’s pit bull while attempting to set up a perimeter as other officers closed in on a murder suspect two doors down. The dog’s owners claim that the dog was fenced in at the time and that the officer shot their dog to gain access to their yard. Riverside police Lt. Guy Toussaint told The Press Enterprise that officers were already in the backyard when the dog threatened them.
Last week in Thornton, CO police shot and killed a dog they say charged at them with its mouth opened while the officers were pursuing a man wanted for a misdemeanor drug charge. However one neighbor who witnessed the shooting told Fox 31 Denver that the dog posed no threat to the officers. “He wasn’t running, he wasn’t growling, he wasn’t barking. He was not lunging.” The dog’s family and witnesses say that the dog was in his own front yard when he was shot.
The above stories are all slightly different variations of the same sickening story: cops show up where they do not belong and slaughter the innocent pets of innocent people. It is bad enough when law enforcement agencies cross the line and destroy or seize our property without just cause, but pet-killing is on a different level. After all, we cannot replace a dog like we can a front door or a fence post. It is disturbing that police officers can so often be careless with the lives of dogs who are normally just trying to do their jobs: defend their families and their homes.
Of course, accidents will happen. Sometimes an officer must take the life of a dangerous animal when it becomes aggressive and threatens public safety. Too often however cops display almost thuggish behavior and complete disregard for the pets of the people they purport to protect and serve. In many ways this is a natural side effect of decades of police militarization and no-knock warrants brought on by the war on drugs. This is clearly on display in the case in Buffalo.
Every day across the United States police brandishing assault weapons and wearing full body armor break down doors and sweep houses, usually looking for illicit drugs. Most of the time, the police get the right address and no innocent people or pets are injured. Far too often however cops and judges get it wrong – the SWAT team kicks down the door of a hapless neighbor or a judge is too lax in his standards for issuing search warrants – and it is innocent people who pay the price for law enforcement’s overzealous prosecution of potential drug dealers.
In some of these cases, police simply display a lazy attitude and prefer to shoot dogs that get in the way, even when it is unclear that the dog is a legitimate threat. With relatively few incidences of attacks on professionals like meter readers and postal workers (all puns aside), it is difficult to see how police officers so frequently find themselves in situations where killing someone’s family member is the only option.
As Radley Balko pointed out in an excellent editorial in The Daily Beast, “There’s no question that in some circumstances, a police officer may have no choice but to shoot an aggressive animal. The problem is that in too many of these cases, the use of lethal force isn’t the last option taken, but the first.”
Whether law enforcement is overzealous, lazy or simply negligent there is no excuse for taking the lives of innocent pets other than as a last resort to protect against a legitimate and serious danger to the lives of police officers and members of the public. Police departments should do more to train their officers to better understand dog behavior and deal more humanely with animals that may pose a threat. While these are important steps to protect the lives of our pets, we must also address the larger issue which is the protection of our constitutional right to be secure in our own property and possessions.
Yes, dog-killing cops are infuriating enough on their own, but we must realize they are a product of an underlying lack of respect for our civil liberties that permeates many law enforcement agencies and our justice system.Too many police officers believe that they have a job to do and you, your dog and your constitutional rights better stay out of the way.
When informed voters are willing to elect leaders who are more concerned with the rights of their constituents than appearing “tough on crime” our pets and civil liberties will be more secure.
Special thanks to theagitator.com for supplying some of the links.