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?