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That Doggone Blu Just Won't Go Away
February 17, 2006

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

 Dog's death coming back to bite city
- Chip Johnson
Monday, February 13, 2006

Maybe the death of old Blu, a 1 1/2-year-old pit bull Richmond police shot to death in July, will not be in vain.

One thing is almost certain, though. It's going to cost the city a bundle.

The Police Department plans to take another look at its policy for handling threatening animals now that the Police Commission has ruled in favor of Blu's owners, Cynthia Peters and Mark Parr, and attributed the dog's death to deficient department guidelines for such situations.

The commission sided with the couple in their appeal of the Police Department's internal investigation, which found no fault with the three officers who shot Blu 11 times on July 27 while pursuing a suspect. The commission did not place any blame on the officers because it did not investigate their conduct -- though it should have.

The commission's ruling clears the way for a federal lawsuit claiming several violations of the couple's civil rights, and it would be folly for the city to challenge the case because a federal court has already told the city its policy is illegal. If recent legal precedent is a guide, Richmond had better get ready to pony up at least $500,000 to settle the suit.

At issue is a department policy that allowed Richmond police to enter a yard and shoot any dog they deem a threat, or let the animal out of the yard and then shoot it, and that's exactly what the three unnamed officers who killed Blu did.

The officers had chased a suspect into the Sixth Street apartment building where Parr and Peters lived at the time. Blu was in the yard, which is surrounded by a 10-foot-tall Cyclone fence; the officers opened the gate to enter the yard and opened fire with pistols and a shotgun.

In addition to shooting Blu, Parr alleges in his lawsuit, the officers kicked and punched him during his arrest. Whether or not that can be proved, the obstruction charges filed against Parr were dropped at his first court appearance.

So essentially, Parr was roughed up and thrown in jail for three hours for mourning the wrongful death of his dog.

What makes the case of Blu even more stunning is the fact that Richmond had been down that road before. In 1991, police officers entered James Fuller's yard to speak with him and shot his dog, Champ, during the exchange. The Ninth U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled that killing a pet violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. The city paid Fuller $525,000.

And if last week's $990,000 settlement of a lawsuit stemming from a similar case in San Jose in 1998 is any guide, Richmond is going to pay.

In the San Jose case, police shot three dogs during searches stemming from a homicide investigation. Santa Clara County, which also was named in the lawsuit, paid $990,000 to settle it. The attorney's fees in that case amounted to $535,000, said Karen Snell, an attorney in the case who also is representing Parr and Peters. The case against the San Jose Police Department is still pending.

If Richmond wants to talk settlement, Snell is listening.

"In general, civil rights trials go to court more often than most cases, but in this case, where there is a finding from the (police) commission, it would be wise to talk settlement,'' she said.

No one in Richmond would talk about the particulars of the Peters and Parr case, but Police Chief Chris Magnus, who assumed his duties last month, said he has already initiated new training courses for dealing with problem dogs. The first class was held last week.

Magnus concedes that any case involving the death of an animal elicits a strong response. Magnus, who came to Richmond from Fargo, N.D., where he was chief, said one of the most controversial cases of his career involved the killing of a moose that had wandered into Fargo.

"We shot a moose that had wandered into the urban quarters," he said. "The editor of the local paper said they'd never received more letters to the editor. Fargo is hardly a hotbed for groups like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), but seeing a photo of a mother moose being removed from a schoolyard with a backhoe, well, we dealt with that one for years."

And while Magnus acknowledged the need to develop a new set of guidelines regarding encounters with potentially vicious dogs, he said there almost certainly will be other instances where officers are compelled to kill a pet to ensure their own safety.

One of the most refreshing things that Magnus has done in this case is to request a meeting with Peters and Parr. He doesn't want to discuss a settlement or explain away the officer's actions, or his department's handling of the matter.

He wants to apologize. He wants to express his condolences over the loss of their dog. That doesn't necessarily mean he doesn't support his officers -- there are conflicting accounts of just what led to Blu's death -- but Magnus says owning up to Blu's death is the right thing to do.

"Being sorry that something happened doesn't mean that your people acted in the wrong way,'' he said.

What a novel approach. Admitting a mistake, owning up to it and doing something to make sure it doesn't happen again, never mind the potential legal risks of taking responsibility for an error.

"We can do better as a department in terms of addressing these issues,'' Magnus said.

If Richmond does a better job next time an officer meets up with a dog, Blu will not have died in vain.

Chip Johnson's column appears on Mondays and Fridays. E-mail him at chjohnson@sfchronicle.com.