In mid-July*, a Salt Lake City police officer encountered a family dog in a fenced backyard. When the dog, Geist, approached—presumably to defend his property from a stranger—the officer shot and killed him.
While dog shootings often receive little attention, the dog’s owner, Sean Kendall, recorded his initial encounter with the police. The posted video went viral, and the pet community rallied.
The SLC police department defensively reacted with arguments that the dog was “extremely close,” “the officer felt threatened,” the officer was “a hero” on another case, they were searching for a child, and—my favorite irrelevant red herring—that they’ve seen less public outcry “when certain human beings have lost their lives” (which simultaneously implies that the dog’s life was not valuable).
No apologies. No condolences.
Turns out that police shootings of pets are common. No government agency keeps statistics on such, but the U.S. Department of Justice acknowledges that the majority of intentional firearm discharges involve animals, with dogs being the primary victims. According to the ASPCA, most reports involve family animals in their own yards.
Animal abuse activists have tallied a conservative count by tracking news stories: a pet is killed by law enforcement every 98 minutes in the United States. Often those animals are lying down, wagging a tail, or running away. Their owners are also prevented from intervening. The officer only has to “feel” threatened, a low bar for justifying lethal force.
The prevalence of the problem across the U.S. is quickly illustrated with a Google search (see inset).
The standard, consistent reasoning behind these shootings: the dog was “aggressive.” This is where we, the public, are supposed to roll over and blithely accept the “necessity” of killing the animal.
Sorry, not buying it.
While some of these cases may have been justified, the majority of these killings reflect ignorance about dogs, at best, and cruelty at worst. Basic training and revised policies and procedures concerning dog encounters would have avoided most of these incidents. Even if a dog barks, snarls, and even postures to intimidate, danger is not necessarily imminent and can be mitigated. Postal deliverers deal with this issue all the time, and they aren’t killing off dogs on their routes. Alternatives are available if an officer is nervous: yelling, backing up slowly, tasers, batons, pepper spray, and, as a last resort, a shooting a leg.
Some police departments and officers, like “Cops for Canine Compassion,” are recognizing the issues and stepping up. However, the momentum seems to be building too slowly. Just the sheer number of potential animals in officers’ sights, let alone the changing attitudes toward animals, should incite all police departments to revise their tactics. In the United States, 37-47 percent of households have canine companions, numbering 70-80 million dogs. That’s a lot of dogs, and that’s a lot of people who care.
Back to Geist. It’s doubtful that the officer will be held accountable. However, at a minimum, the SLC police department needs to implement the training tools already provided by the Community-Oriented Policing Services within the Department of Justice. Their printed materials and free video training services, entitled “Police and Dog Encounters: Tactical Strategies and Effective Tools to Keep Our Communities Safe and Humane,” address, among other topics:
- Assessing the Situation
- Communicating with Dogs: Police and Dog Body Language
- Using Force Considerations
An apology would be nice too.
Our dogs are more than “personal property,” despite the legal definitions. We emotionally connect with them as we would a friend or family member. And, unlike an inanimate couch, when destroyed, a life is gone. A dog’s death hurts us to the core.
The SLC Police Department, as well as departments across the country, need to recognize this. Otherwise, they will continue to face increased scrutiny, litigation, and loss of community trust.
First published in Pets in the City Magazine, August 2014