When Cops Shoot Fido

In encounters between law enforcement and family dogs, no one wins.

dogs police brutality animal abuse cop shoots dog

More than half of all law enforcement guns fired in California are aimed at family dogs. (Photo: Mihai Vasile/Reuters)

Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

On April 14, 2012, Michael Paxton was walking the grounds of his Austin, Texas, property. Paxton noticed a police officer in the driveway of his house—gun drawn. The officer was investigating a domestic disturbance call, and Paxton, much to his surprise, was a person of interest.

The situation was already tense, when, suddenly, Paxton’s Australian cattle dog Cisco came bounding around the corner from the backyard to see what the commotion was—barking when he saw the officer.

Paxton immediately recognized the danger, and begged the officer not to shoot his dog. Despite Paxton’s pleas, the officer fired—killing Cisco before his owner’s eyes.

Law enforcement agencies across America have no universal training in regard to dogs.

Moments after the shooting, a tragic reality set in. The officer had responded to the wrong house. The domestic disturbance was next door.

Nearly 40 percent of all American households have a dog. Given those odds, it seems rather obvious that law enforcement officers are forced to deal with household pets over the course of their daily patrols, drug busts and traffic stops. Like the incident that took Cisco’s life, many of these encounters are violent.

A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s COPS Office (Office of Community Oriented Policing Services) on dog-related incidents with police found that more than half of all the shots fired by law enforcement officers in California between 2000 to 2005 were aimed at dogs. There’s no shortage of tragic evidence of these encounters on YouTube. Google them at your own peril.

Fans of comedian Dave Chappelle’s  The Chappelle Show probably remember the actor’s infamous “Law N Order” sketch. In Chappelle’s bizaro-universe, a white corporate criminal receives the same treatment from law enforcement as a black drug dealer. When arresting the corporate thief, the first thing officers do is shoot the man’s harmless golden retriever, splattering dog blood over the man’s wife.

The scene played for big laughs, but you couldn’t help but detect the anger behind the writing. Though there are no statistics to back the hunch, given Chappelle’s keen eye for racial hypocrisy, the inference is that poor and minority households have been dealing with the killing of their pets by law enforcement officers for quite some time.

As any post officer worker can tell you, dogs do present a genuine threat to civil servants in the community. There are more than 3,000 dog attacks on U.S. Postal Service mail carriers each year.

“We’re not anti-dog,” says USPS spokesman Rich Maher. “But anyone who enters a property, is a stranger to [the dog] and a threat to the property.”

Recognizing the danger, the USPS has developed a national set of training procedures to deal with dogs. USPS carriers are all equipped with pepper spray and are trained how to use it in case of a dog attack. 

Law enforcement agencies across America, however, have no such universal training in regard to dogs. For instance, according to its policy manual, the Austin Police Department is authorized to use deadly force on an animal if it presents an “imminent threat to the safety of an officer or others.”

Of course all dogs have the potential to bite. Is that threat sufficient to be considered imminent? The manual offers no further guidelines.

Strangely, though animal activists are sympathetic to the issue, it remains largely under their radars.

“There are currently no official campaigns underway nor are we currently actively pushing for a set of uniform standards,” Humane Society spokesperson Nicole Ianni tells TakePart. “We do support the idea of a national accreditation system for SWAT officers that would make the killing of dogs a ‘last resort.’ ”

Without a major national media push, it seems unlikely that law enforcement agencies will be forced to consider uniform standards that protect officers and family pets (and taxpayers for that matter, who foot the bill when citizens sue over the death of their dogs). Even in Austin, which saw a media firestorm in the wake of Cisco’s killing, it remains to be seen whether any further officer/dog policies will be outlined. 

“They are still working on that,” Austin Police Department Sgt. David Daniels tells TakePart. “The case is still under review.”

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