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Originally published December 1, 2012 at 6:51 PM | Page modified December 3, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Half of intentional shootings by police involve dogs, study says

Dog shootings by police are mostly avoidable and preventable, say groups pushing for officers to learn more about animal behavior.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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There has never been a documented case of a dog killing a police officer.

The same can't be said for police killing dogs.

Every year, hundreds — if not thousands — of animals, mostly canines, are killed by police or animal-control officers. According to the National Canine Research Council, up to half of the intentional shootings by police involve dogs.

Sometimes, the animals have been injured and need to be put out of their misery. Sometimes, they are vicious and killed for reasons of public or officer safety.

But mostly, they die tragically and needlessly, victims of misunderstanding, prejudice or simple convenience, according to animal-rights and behavior experts.

Usually, police simply aren't properly trained or don't have the resources to deal with canine encounters, the experts say.

The Internet is peppered with memorials to family pets gunned down by officers.

There's Axel, the 18-month-old Labrador therapy dog-in-training shot in November by an animal-control officer in Charles City, Va., for chasing a neighbor boy. Bully, Boss and Kahlua, a trio of dogs, were killed in August by police in Palm Beach, Fla., while officers were trying to arrest a friend of the dogs' owner. On Nov. 2, police in Middleton, Ohio, shot and killed a 30-pound pet pig after it reportedly tried to bite an officer. The pig was on a leash, according to news reports.

Then there's Rosie, the 4-year-old Newfoundland who was twice shot with a Taser, chased from her yard and then repeatedly shot by Des Moines police after a neighbor had reported her loose and was worried she might get hurt. A federal lawsuit filed by her owners last month, two years after her death — death that experts say happens much too often and can easily be avoided — has reopened wounds and stoked public outrage.

The officers involved were cleared of wrongdoing by the department, and Rosie's owners, Deirdre and Charles Wright, failed in their attempts to have them charged criminally.

"This has got to be a huge embarrassment for that department. And it was very preventable," said Donald Cleary, the director of communications for the National Canine Research Council (NCRC) in Amenia, N.Y., which studies human-canine relations.

"It's like they just ran out of ideas."

Even the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) has recognized the issue.

Last year, the DOJ published a 46-page police training and information guide, "The Problem of Dog-Related Incidents and Encounters," through its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). The report, funded by a grant from the NCRC and developed by the University of Illinois Center for Public Safety and Justice, aims to dispel myths about dogs and dog bites and provide resources to help police develop nonlethal strategies for officer-dog encounters.

The report followed a 2010 position paper by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which concluded that "most instances of police shooting dogs are avoidable" and urged departments to train officers to better understand dog behavior and to use the minimum force necessary to deal with it.

The COPS report provides just that sort of useful information to street officers, said Cleary, who was one of its co-authors. For example, it contains diagrams to help officers assess the threat posed by a dog based on its "posture, vocalizations and facial expressions," and provides defensive options short of deadly force to avoid encounters with agitated, frightened or aggressive animals.

"They are very preventable, and most wouldn't happen if police knew just a little bit more about dogs," he said.

COPS Director Bernard Melekian, a former Pasadena, Calif., police chief and K-9 officer, wrote in a preface to the report that the number of dogs killed by law enforcement is on the increase and that "officers must advance beyond automatically using their weapons when encountered by a dog."

The report seeks to dispel myths about dogs and dog bites. For instance, despite reports of a "dog-bite epidemic," the number of dog bites has decreased over the past 30 years while canine populations have steadily grown, the report says. In New York City, for example, there were 37,000 reports of dog bites in 1971. In 2009, the number was fewer than 3,600.

At the same time, the majority of police-involved shootings involve animals, mostly dogs. While national numbers are not available, the report contends that statistics kept by cities that track such incidents bear this out.

For example, the report says that nearly three-quarters of the police shootings in Milwaukee, Wis., from 2000 to 2002 involved dogs. Information provided by a number of California law-enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, indicate at least half of the intentional discharges of firearms by police between 2000 and 2005 involved animals, the report says.

Some cities have seen improvements as they've moved toward integrating animal-control and law-enforcement agencies. Last year in New York City, 43 dogs were shot in 36 different incidents, according to the NYPD's 2011 Firearms Discharge Report, which contains a section titled "Animal Attack."

It noted that NYPD officers responded to 28,000 calls for service involving dogs or other animals during the year. Five officers and two civilians were bitten during the shooting incidents, the report says.

The Seattle Police Department requires a Firearms Review Board to convene and formally review any incident involving an officer shooting at a person. However, it allows for a less stringent "summary review" of incidents involving dogs, said Becky Roe, a Seattle attorney and the civilian auditor of the SPD's Firearms Review Board.

Roe said she has not seen a Firearms Review Board report involving a dog shooting in the six years she's held the job, but that she has no information about the summary reviews. Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said he had no information about dog shootings outside the shooting-review process.

King County sheriff's Sgt. Cindi West said it has been difficult for her office to track shootings involving animals, since up until just recently, deputies were not required to write a separate report about such incidents. She said all of the shootings are reviewed by command staff.

"It certainly happens," she said.

As witnessed by the outrage directed at the Des Moines Police Department over the death of Rosie, few incidents can undermine public confidence in a police department faster than the questionable shooting of someone's pet, Cleary said.

"It's not about animal rights. And nobody is questioning an officer's right to protect himself or the public," Cleary said. "But police need to know, to really understand, is that it just doesn't look good."

And it can be expensive. While dogs do not have civil rights, their owners do, and courts have delivered some significant verdicts over the death of a pet.

In perhaps the most noteworthy case, the California cities of San Jose, Gilroy and Santa Clara paid a total of $1.8 million to the families of two Hells Angels whose three pet dogs were shot by police serving a search warrant in a homicide investigation.

North Carolina last year paid a family $77,000 and then passed a law requiring state troopers to receive training in dog behavior after an officer shot Patton, a pit-bull mix that bounded out of a car with a wagging tail after a trooper had pulled the family over on a mistaken report of a robbery. The incident was captured on videotape.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

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