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  Richmond Also Dangerous for Dogs
December 3, 2005

Can a Richmond police officer come into your yard and shoot your dog dead? Can a Richmond police officer open the gate to your yard, let your dog out and shoot it dead on the sidewalk?

Yes. Under current policy based on Richmond Police Department Operation Manual Section 302.11, either of these scenarios is deemed justified.

Several years ago, I vividly recall the City Council having to act on a settlement in an incident that began when Richmond police officers had information that a robbery or car theft suspect was located in a garage. They decided to approach the garage by creeping through an adjacent yard. In that yard, they were confronted by a dog (not a pit bull), wagging its tail and eager to greet (according to the owner), or menacing (according to the police). In any event, the dog was shot dead.

Apparently, there were no apologies or offers of compensation. A claim was filed, and the dog owner was at first inclined to settle for a modest sum. The City resisted. Ultimately, the case wound up in federal court and cost the City around a half million dollars to extract itself. And we were told we were lucky to get out that cheaply.

After taking such a financial hit, some of us Council members asked then Police Chief Joe Samuels to find a better way to deal with dogs encountered on private property and ameliorating the emotional aftermath of incidents where pets of innocent bystanders might be killed on private property in the course of a police action.

Fast forward to August, 2005. Richmond police officers allegedly observed a suspect they were seeking enter an upper unit of a two-story six-plex. The yard of a lower unit (not the one where the suspect was seen) was fenced, and in it was a dog – a pit bull. According to the Police Department, the officers surrounded the building, entered the yard through a closed gate and were confronted by the dog, which aggressively approached them. They backed out of the yard, leaving the gate open. When the dog came out on the sidewalk, it was shot simultaneously by three officers and killed.

The dog owner’s version, which was given at the August 2, 2005, City Council meeting Open Forum differs in some critical details but is essentially similar in its essence – the police let the dog out of a fenced yard and then killed it. Like the earlier dog story, the police and the owner had contrasting recollections of the dog’s level of friendliness during the episode.

Also, like the previous incident, there apparently were no apologies or offers of compensation, and in both cases, the targeted suspect apparently eluded capture.

In the 2005 incident, Interim Police Chief Terry Hudson found that the officers were justified in killing the dog because it reasonably appeared necessary to stop a dangerous animal believed to be a threat to them or others. He also says it will likely happen again. 

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Richmond now has a reputation as a dangerous place. We know about the homicide statistics. What has not been detailed so much in the press are other statistics, like we are nearly four times the national average for robberies. We are well above the national average for thefts and burglaries and nearly six times the national average for motor vehicle thefts.

Having a pooch or two in the yard gives some law abiding citizens a little peace of mind out here on the wild frontier. But if a police officer decides to enter your yard or open your gate without your invitation and doesn’t like the level of affection demonstrated by your dog, that same dog could be justifiably and summarily terminated. And it would be your fault. You probably wouldn’t get an apology or any compensation.

Now, I’m truly no fan of pit bulls, and I have plenty of respect for our police officers and the daily dangers and challenges they face. But something about this policy that condones killing of dogs on private property doesn’t feel right. I have to believe there is a better way.

For example, I’ve spent a lot of time in grizzly bear country over the years, and I know that in places like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, back country hikers and park rangers carry pepper spray canisters in case of a chance encounter of the too close kind with an aggressive bruin. I know they don’t simply shoot bears that give them the evil eye. I assume that what would work for a half-ton wild grizzly would work for a dog – even a pit bull.

One of the duties of the Police Commission is to “Review and evaluate the policies, practices and procedures contained in the Richmond Police Department Manual and develop programs and strategies to promote positive police-community relations and make appropriate recommendations to the Chief of Police (3.54.080(a)). I think it would be a good idea for our Police Commission to take a look immediately at revamping the policies involving police encounters with dogs that are legally secured on private property.

Why am I writing about this four months after it happened? Because getting information out of the RPD is not easy. I asked for a report on August 3 and again on September 7, November 11 and November 30. Only last night did I finally get a report dated August 12 – nearly three months ago. As of November 29, the city attorney told me that no one had filed a claim nor was there any threat of litigation. In fact, a complaint had been filed by the dog’s owner months earlier but had not been acted on. On December 1, a letter went out from the Office of the Chief of Police to the dog’s owner stating the allegation of excessive force was not sustained. Why the nearly four-month delay? Why didn’t the city attorney know what was going on in the Police Department? Who knows? That’s Richmond.

Here is what the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) says about police-dog encounters:

“The sad reality is that dogs are frequently used as weapons by serious offenders, and such animals are often encountered by police in the course of their regular duties. Officers are generally granted broad powers to shoot such animals if they feel they are in "imminent danger," or if a dog has killed or is in the process of attacking livestock or other pets. Unfortunately, police rarely receive any training that would allow them to rapidly and realistically assess the degree of danger posed by a dog; nor are they routinely trained in a wide variety of non-lethal tools and techniques available to them as an alternative to shooting. Since more than one-third of American households have a dog, officers are likely to encounter canines whenever they approach or enter a residence. Although they may encounter truly dangerous dogs in some situations, the majority of dogs are likely to be well-behaved family pets who are legitimately protecting their homes and families from intruders.”

Statistics indicate that the majority of weapon discharge reports by local law enforcement involve dogs, and it is not unusual for police and innocent bystanders to be injured in the process.

The HSUS believes that most instances in which police shoot dogs are avoidable and such incidents often underscore other problems, whether in policies, procedures, communication or training. HUSUS offers the following solutions to prevent the needless killing of dogs, not to mention the high risk of injuries to officers and the general public in such instances:

  • Establish better communication between law enforcement and animal care and control agencies, including the sharing of information about addresses with a history of calls for violent offenses or dangerous animals.
  • Review existing policies and data on shootings and institute administrative review of all such shootings.
  • Enact a Force Continuum approach for encounters with dogs, similar to that for encounters with people, which stipulates an escalating scale of options in which lethal force is considered a last resort.
  • Provide officers with up-to-date equipment that can be used as an alternative to lethal force.
  • Provide officers with training in identifying and assessing potentially dangerous dogs, as well as instruction on how to use their existing equipment more safely and effectively in situations with potentially dangerous dogs.

What you can do:

  • If you believe Richmond needs to reform its police policies allowing the killing of pets legally contained on private property, press “reply to all” and whatever message you send will be distributed to the City Council, the Police Commission and the city manager.
  • The matter will also be on the December 6, City Council Agenda (N-8), and anyone in attendance can speak at that time.