|Canine Killing Caper Piques
Interest of Bay Area Media
December 9, 2005
The following stories appeared in today’s San Francisco Chronicle and West County Times. Also see TOM BUTT E-FORUM, December 3, 2005, “Richmond Also Dangerous for Dogs.”
Cynthia Peters watched in horror from her kitchen window last July as a Richmond police officer chasing a suspect opened a secured gate to her yard as two other cops, guns drawn, waited for her pit bull Blu to step beyond the fence.
When it did, she said, the three officers opened fire with pistols and a shotgun, shooting the animal 11 times.
Peters and boyfriend Mark Parr -- who was arrested after protesting the killing of his dog -- complained to the City Council and were promised a thorough investigation by the police department's internal affairs unit.
Last week, Blu's owners finally got a response.
"Based upon the information available, your allegation of excessive force by Sergeant Esparza, Officer Llamas and Officer D. Harris was cleared as not sustained," wrote acting interim Chief Eugene McBride. "This means there was insufficient evidence to sustain the complaint.''
As odd as it might sound, department policy allows officers to enter a yard and shoot any dog they deem a threat -- or let the animal out of a fenced yard, and then shoot it -- while carrying out their duties. This despite the fact a federal court has told the city such behavior is unconstitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court this week declined to hear a similar case out of San Jose.
In a weapons discharge report sent to Richmond city officials five months earlier, previous interim Police Chief Terry Hudson reported that the officers were forced to kill the dog because it had displayed threatening and aggressive behavior. Hudson based his conclusions on the department's supposedly thorough investigation.
Never mind that the investigation consisted exclusively of questioning the officers involved. No one bothered to call Peters or a neighbor, even though both women say they saw the whole thing.
Here's how they tell it:
Peters and her boyfriend arrived home to find their six-unit apartment building on Sixth Street surrounded by police -- not an unusual sight in their neighborhood. They let Blu out into the yard, surrounded by a 10-foot high cyclone fence, to do his business.
While Parr was outside with the dog, Geneva Walker approached as police -- who were searching for her son, Cecil Walker -- were opening the gate.
"I expected to see the dog come out, and when I turned around he rose up on two legs and then he was shot in the chest, and he went down,'' she said. "Then they just start letting go bullets. He wasn't vicious, charging or anything. He looked playful.''
Peters said she saw Blu hesitate for about 20 seconds after police opened the gate, then wander beyond the fence to his death.
If this story sounds familiar to anyone, it should be to Richmond city officials, who seem to have short memories. The city fought, and lost, an almost identical battle in the 1990s.
In September 1991, while investigating another matter, Richmond police passed the home of James Fuller, who was in the backyard with his dog, Champ. Police said the dog became aggressive and they were forced to shoot it. Fuller argued that the dog merely stood up on its hind legs when officers approached.
Fuller filed a claim, which the city rejected, and then sued. The city won; Fuller appealed. In 1994, the Ninth U.S. District Court of Appeals in San Francisco reversed the lower court ruling and held killing a pet violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The city paid Fuller $525,000.
Stung, the City Council told Joseph Samuels, then the chief of police, to come up with a better way for officers to deal with dogs. Apparently he didn't.
As if already losing one case after shooting a pet weren't enough incentive, city officials now have the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to get involved in a similar case.
On Monday, the high court refused to hear San Jose's appeal to a lower-court ruling that upholds property rights even when police are serving a legal search warrant at a private residence.
The case stems from the shooting in 1997 of three dogs and the seizure of property during a search by San Jose police and Santa Clara County sheriff's deputies of the homes of several Hells Angels in a homicide investigation. In that case, too, the dogs were behind a secured gate when police shot them.
Karen Snell, the attorney representing the bikers, said she relied heavily on the Richmond case in her making own arguments.
"The city (San Jose) argued that it wasn't clearly established to shoot someone's dog in the execution of a warrant, and that's why the Richmond case became so important to my own case,'' she said.
Needless to say, both Snell and J. Kirk Boyd, the civil rights attorney who represented the Fuller family, said they'd be happy to take on Peters' case, should she decide to sue, and who could blame them? They smell blood in the water.
"I'm sorry this happened and that this person lost their dog. I truly am,'' said City Manager Bill Lindsay. "I'm hopeful that a thorough investigation can explain what happened, and if we have a policy that needs to be changed, I hope we can change it so it won't happen again."
The police department needs to change its policy. To release a dog from a secure yard, for whatever reason, and then shoot it, well, that's against the law, isn't it?
Chip Johnson's column appears on Mondays and Fridays. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dog owner dismayed at inquest
Cynthia Peters used to bottle-feed the 90-pound ball of taut muscle that she still refers to as her baby.
She understands Richmond police may have felt apprehensive about Blu when they opened her gate to search the yard for a fleeing suspect.
But she does not understand why officers pumped 12 rounds into her pit bull, nor why the department took three months to respond to her complaint about it, nor why investigators failed to call any witnesses she offered, all of whom contradicted police accounts of the shooting.
"'Thoroughly investigated' to me means interviewing all of the witnesses," Peters said. "How can you say you thoroughly investigated? How can you justify saying that?"
Her concerns became the topic of a rare public airing of a police internal affairs investigation at this week's Richmond City Council meeting, during which Councilman Tom Butt expressed frustration about his difficulty getting answers about the case; and police managers appeared to contradict each other about how carefully it was probed.
"Based on the statements made by the police department, it appears that Ms. Peters' list of witnesses was never contacted or that the department made any effort to contact them," Butt said after the meeting, which ended about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Peters lived in an apartment near the corner of 6th Street and Ohio Avenue last summer. Officers from the department's Violence Suppression Unit spotted a parolee rumored to have a gun standing in front of the building about 6 p.m. July 27 and chased him inside. His mother also lived in the building, police said.
Mark Parr, Peters' boyfriend, heard the commotion and asked officers through the iron gate enclosing the building's side yard whether they needed help. The officers saw Blu, Parr said, but they did not ask him to move the dog.
Minutes later, officers opened the gate leading to the yard containing Blu.
"Police officers sometimes come into contact with these vicious dogs, as was the case here," Hudson told the council. "The officers retreated, the dog continued and the officers dispatched the dog because they felt that was what was needed."
Department policy permits police to kill animals that threaten people.
But the department's version differs from those of some witnesses. Genevia Walker wrote in a statement submitted to police that three officers waited outside the open gate with guns drawn for about one minute until the dog emerged.
"It took a minute or so for Blue [sic] to come sauntering out. ... Blu saw me as he was crossing over the chicken wire surrounding a small flower bed, and he jumped up like he was saying, 'Weeeeeee,'" Walker wrote. "To my horror, one officer shot one bullet right into his chest ... then the three officers all fired their guns."
The supervisor of the department's Professional Standards Unit, Lt. Arnold Threets, admitted at the council meeting that police did not call Walker or Peters' other witnesses during the internal investigation. Interim Police Chief Terry Hudson earlier told the council that the investigation was taken "to the limit."
Threets said after the meeting he did not intend to convey the impression that non-police witnesses were ignored, though he would not say who was interviewed, citing legal privacy protections for officers accused of misconduct.
"We have contacted the witnesses who were available to be contacted," Threets said.
Butt said he asked the department for information about Peters' complaint at least four times since August. He said he did not receive an Aug. 12 summary that Hudson sent to the council.
"The dog exited the yard and continued on the sidewalk, maintaining his aggressive, threatening manner, at which time all three officers simultaneously discharged their weapons as they were in fear of being attacked by the canine," Hudson wrote.
A similar disagreement over the facts of a police dog-shooting case cost Richmond a $255,000 judgment in U.S. District Court in 1998.
Peters said she has called the department frequently since filing her complaint in August but has not gotten answers about when the internal investigation would be complete or whether the department wanted to interview her witnesses.
One of the officers investigated in the case, Sgt. Hector Esparza, has since been fired by the department in connection with a separate internal investigation.
Esparza supervised a group of officers who were caught on video taking drinks from a soda fountain at a closed Hilltop Mall cookie shop July 15. He was placed on leave in connection with the Hilltop incident soon after the dog-shooting incident.
Peters and Parr each submitted written accounts of the shooting to the department. They say they were not interviewed. A man's name and a partial name are attached to two other statements, each stating the witness can be contacted through Peters. Walker wrote another statement.
Walker did not wish to be quoted, saying she feared police retaliation, but verified that she wrote the statement and said police investigators called her for the first time Monday, four days after the department sent Peters a letter stating her complaint was not sustained.
Peters and Parr, who filed a separate complaint claiming officers roughed him up and arrested him without cause after he became upset at the scene, have appealed the findings to the Richmond Police Commission.
"We will look at the internal affairs findings and, as well, we will look into department policy" regarding shooting animals, said commission investigator Don Casimere. "The matter will be investigated independently, we will complete a thorough investigation."
Reach Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728 or email@example.com.