A California law professor is calling for more police accountability for the thousands of domestic pets gunned down by law enforcement each year, suggesting that states mandate reporting of these lethal incidents to the FBI.
Accurate data do not exist, but according to Department of Justice estimates, police officers kill an estimated 10,000 pet dogs a year– and not just in self defense. In a forthcoming article for the University of New Hampshire Law Review, Courtney G. Lee of the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, Ca., writes that many animals “have been deliberately shot and killed under questionable circumstances, including through doors, or while tied, running away, or hiding.”
The victims are not always big dogs that one can imagine posing a genuine threat.
According to Lee, “police claiming a threat to human safety have shot puppies, Chihuahuas, Miniature Dachshunds, and domestic cats, among others.”
While some police departments have review procedures in place for animal killings, the criteria for determining whether the shooting was justified is overly broad, writes Lee.
Civil complaints are not adequately investigated, and in cases where a suit is filed on Fourth Amendment grounds (where a pet is defined as personal property), the subsequent indemnity evaluation “does not require consideration of any specific criteria regarding behavior signals the animal may have displayed and whether the officer recognized them,” according to Lee.
Echoing criticisms of the “standard of reasonableness” when police shoot civilians, Lee argues that “a general policy to act reasonably, without more, is vague and does little to combat the lack of fundamental respect some officers may show for companion animals.”
Whether the victims are human or nonhuman, “not all police departments track uses of force accurately, regularly, or even at all,” writes Lee. For that reason, record-keeping should be legally mandated by the states, and “require descriptive reporting of all uses of force, including those involving animals, whether officers used their firearms or less lethal equipment like stun guns or pepper spray.”
Lee also makes a case for better police training on how to manage pet encounters, noting that an annual training for meter readers in Chicago led to a 90 percent decrease in dog bite incidents between 1998 and 2006.
Community-based efforts have also made a difference in some areas. After getting slapped with a federal lawsuit for (reportedly) lying about the shooting death of a local Rottweiler named “Bullet,” police in Round Rock, Texas announced a program called Be Aware of Residential K-9s (BARK), in which citizens voluntarily register their animals and receive a bright sticker to display outside of their homes.
While BARK may have improved police relations with the community, Lee points out that in many instances, police have shot animals despite warnings. (Bullet’s owner did have a “beware of Rottweiler” sign in front of his home, according to local media reports.)
In contrast with their treatment of domestic animals, police officers show deep sentimental attachment to their quadruped partners, regularly giving them funerals, memorials, and tearful tributes when they perish in the line of duty.
The penalties for harming a police dog, or horse, are also considerably harsher. While state legislatures typically classify unjustified animal killings as a misdemeanor offense, “killing a police dog or horse is a federal offense that could carry a prison sentence of up to ten years,” writes Lee.
Sometimes, the judgement is more severe, as in the case of one Florida teen who received 23 years in prison for fatally shooting a retired police dog. More recently, a Virginia judge ruled that a teen charged with wounding an officer’s pit bull should be charged as an adult.
Victoria Mckenzie is deputy editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.