What Dog Shootings Reveal About American Policing

A needless assault on two Minneapolis emotional-support pets is the latest demonstration of a persistent problem in law enforcement.

The two dogs, Ciroc and Rocko, that were shot by Minneapolis police officer.  (Courtesy of Jennifer LeMay)

Last Saturday night, a teenager accidentally triggered a burglar alarm when returning to her Minneapolis house. Minutes later, a security company deactivated the alarm, according to the homeowner. Roughly 20 minutes after that, two Minneapolis police officers showed up; one of them chose to go around back and scale a backyard fence to look around. (Update: according to a police spokesperson, the officers never received a “cancel” from the alarm company.)The police officer’s report relates what happened next this way: “Two large size pitbulls charged at officer. Officer dispatched the two dogs, causing them to run back into the residence.”

This is what really happened:

The police officer shot a dog that was approaching him while wagging its tail in a friendly manner—a dog that does not, in fact, appear to have been “charging” him. Then he stood his ground and shot another dog. If a non-cop were caught on camera shooting two dogs who approached in a park in the same manner, there is little doubt that they would find themselves charged with a crime, even if they possessed the gun legally and claimed self-defense. “Ciroc was shot in the jaw, Rocko in the side, face and shoulder,” the Minneapolis Star-Tribute reported. The animals survived after emergency care.

Police shootings of humans are a national scandal in the United States, where law enforcement officers kill far more people than their counterparts in other highly developed democracies, and powerful police unions help shield some members from accountability. Those incidents are properly the focus of far more concern than any dog shooting.

And even so, dog shootings warrant national attention.

This is most evident when dog shootings threaten the lives of humans. Last year, an LAPD officer shot and killed a dog on the crowded boardwalk in Venice Beach—and hit a passing cyclist with a bullet that passed through the dog and wound up in her foot. Last month, an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy  killed a 17-year-old when a bullet meant for a pit bull that had bitten a deputy ricocheted off the ground and struck the teen.

And even when humans are neither struck nor at risk nor bereaved at the loss of a beloved pet, the frequency with which dogs are shot by cops in America is alarming—and revealing.

How frequent is it?

There is no comprehensive tracking, no official number, but as I put it in a previous article, if I told you that American cops kill 50 dogs a year, would you think that's high or low?

Well, that is the rough figure for metro Atlanta alone.

The Nation has noted a Department of Justice estimate of 10,000 dogs per year killed by police.

Last year, Reason dug up records showing that two Detroit police officers had killed 100 dogs between them over the course of their careers. And Reason obtained the best available data on dog shootings from several major jurisdictions that maintain some records:

A Justice Department official speculated in a 2012 interview with Police magazine that the number could be as high as 10,000 a year, calling it "an epidemic." That figure that is often repeated in media reports about dog shootings, but it's little more than a guess. A 2012 study by the National Canine Research Council estimated that half of all intentional police shootings involved dogs.

There are no reporting requirements, unlike for other use-of-force incidents. Considering the U.S. doesn't even accurately track how many humans are killed at the hands of cops every year, it's no surprise the picture is so murky when it comes to dogs.

To shed light on the phenomenon in one U.S. city that's been hit with a series of lawsuits over dog shootings, Reason obtained the "destruction of animal" reports filed by Detroit Police Department officers in 2015 and the first eight months of 2016. The reports provide a broader context for the individual shootings that have drawn local and national media attention. Unfortunately, they also illustrate the difficulty of getting public information from a major police department on how its officers use deadly force.

Detroit police officers killed at least 25 dogs in 2015. So far in 2016, they've shot at least 21. One officer was bitten by a dog during that time period, according to the records. There were two fatal dog attacks in Detroit in 2015 and 2016. The victims were a 4-year-old boy and a 71-year-old woman.

How do those numbers compare to other major metro areas? It's hard to say. In Chicago—a city with 2.7 million people compared to Detroit's 680,000—there were 84 incidents in which an officer fired a weapon at an animal over the same time period, according to public records obtained by Reason. In New York City, the 35,000 sworn officers of the NYPD killed nine dogs in 2014, the last year for which the department released detailed information about weapon discharges by officers. The Los Angeles and Philadelphia police departments rejected records requests for similar information, although the LAPD has admitted to killing eight dogs in 2015.

What does all this reveal?

Radley Balko, who has done more than any other journalist to expose these killings, has gleaned one of the keenest insights by comparing cops to others who encounter dogs:

Not every dog killing means an officer acted wrongly or maliciously... Many of the shootings occur when police attempt to control dogs that are reported to be dangerous or to have attacked someone. Making sudden movements can cause officers to reflexively reach for a weapon, and dogs greeting strangers are just about the most erratic and sudden movers of all. Officers have been knocked down and bitten by dogs they were called in to help control. About a dozen dog-bite fatalities occur every year, with most of the victims children and the elderly. Dogs can pose a real threat.

Yet killing isn’t necessarily the only option. After all, just like police officers, postal workers regularly encounter both vicious and gregarious dogs on their daily rounds. But letter carriers don’t kill dogs, even though they are bitten by the thousands every year. Instead, the Postal Service offers its employees training on how to avoid bites. (In addition, the agency keeps a centralized database of dog bites, a marked contrast to the lack of data on police killings.) At the sessions, handlers put postal workers through sample scenarios using live dogs, teaching them how to calm a dog, distract a dog and even fend one off if necessary. Similar training for meter readers has massively reduced instances of bites. Trainers say that in many cases, officers simply have no idea how to read a dog’s body language.

In a later article on a Mississippi cop who shot a Labrador, claiming that he felt threatened despite its leash, and an Ohio cop who injured a 4-year-old girl while shooting at a dog, Balko added, “Given that there’s no shortage of actual human beings getting shot by police officers, pointing these stories out can sometimes seem a bit callous. But I think they’re worth noting because they all point to the same problem. In too much of policing today, officer safety has become the highest priority. It trumps the rights and safety of suspects. It trumps the rights and safety of bystanders. It’s so important, in fact, that an officer’s subjective fear of a minor wound from a dog bite is enough to justify using potentially lethal force, in this case at the expense of a 4-year-old girl.”

He added:

And this isn’t the first time. In January, an Iowa cop shot and killed a woman by mistake while trying to kill her dog. Other cops have shot other kids, other bystanders, their partners, their supervisors and even themselves while firing their guns at a dog. That mind-set is then, of course, all the more problematic when it comes to using force against people.

It is not unreasonable to ask police officers to display the same degree of courage in the face of sometimes hostile canines that we ask of every United States postal carrier. Cops unable to marshal it cannot be trusted to put the public's safety before their own.

And it is not unreasonable to ask police departments to train cops as well as meter readers when the failure to do so predictably results in needlessly killed pets and endangered humans. But many police departments don’t care enough to go to the trouble.

The final lesson from Saturday’s Minneapolis shooting is that police officers sometimes misrepresent the circumstances that ostensibly justified their decision to shoot––and that their accounts should not be presumed accurate absent corroborating video.

Says the Star-Tribune:

The woman whose dogs were shot and wounded by police in their north Minneapolis backyard — an encounter captured on residential surveillance video — wants the officer prosecuted for filing a false report that said the animals charged at him.

Attorney Michael Padden, in a statement issued Tuesday on behalf of Jennifer LeMay and her family, alleged that officer Michael Mays should be disciplined, “up to and including termination,” for what he alleged in the report filed Saturday night a few hours after shooting the dogs. Padden said it’s against the law for a peace officer to file a false report, prompting him to call on Police Chief Janeé Harteau to ensure criminal prosecution of the officer. A Police Department spokeswoman declined to respond.

If there are no consequences for filing police reports that do not reflect what actually happened, expect America’s police officers to keep filing them at the current rate.