Thursday, June 2, 2011

Fatal Dog Attacks are a Big Deal

Today I would like to amplify a bit on my last post dealing with the human factor in dog aggression. Specifically, let’s talk a few minutes about why a fatal dog attack investigation is a different sort of creature, and why these investigations are important at all.

Far too many times, when a dog attacks and kills someone the general reaction is, “Oh-the dog did it” and that is it.  No real investigation occurs.  Oh sure, a few questions are asked and the authorities try to find out who owns the dog. Animal Control or the Health Department asks if the dog had current rabies shots.  But too often that's it.

In the last few years, however, a number of things have happened.  First, civil claims have grown immensely.  The litigation process has required a much deeper analysis of cause and effect in order to figure out who has to write a check.  Blame has to be assigned, and with blame comes liability and a sometimes lucrative payoff.  Is this a bad thing? No-victims, and victims’ families, deserve to be compensated for their losses.

Hand in hand with civil litigation is a developing interest in criminal prosecution of irresponsible owners.  I have personally participated in several successful prosecutions, including some that were groundbreaking for the states where they happened. Reckless owners are now, in increasing numbers, being held to account for their actions, or lack of actions, with jail or prison time.  This is a good thing.

Hand in hand with the factors above is what many in Law Enforcement call the “CSI Effect”. Juries, both civil and criminal, expect a higher standard of proof and detailed evidence, like they see weekly on the various franchises of “CSI”, and others like “NCIS” and “Criminal Minds”.  Cop shows are big business and cool techno-toys help sell the franchise.

In our criminal justice system detailed proof, especially in critical cases like homicide, is a good thing.  In human cases we no longer (I hope) round up the “usual suspects” and try and pin a crime on whomever seems guilty.  We demand proof, physical evidence, a chain of events that proceeds with some sort of (at least) internal logic; “Professor Plum hit Miss Peacock in the head with a candlestick in the library-and left his fingerprints on the door, DNA on the candlestick, and had front-oriented blood spatter identifiable to Miss Peacock on his suit coat.”  Homicide is a crime that our society ranks as one of the worst, a crime that carries the possibility of execution.  A homicide case deserves all of our best efforts and investigative skills.  Homicides of children are cases that we find particularly heinous.

A fatal dog attack is a homicide.  Most often with a child victim.

All of the elements of proving a homicide are needed in a fatal attack.  We have to prove that the death occurred because of a specific action or inaction.  That action has to be directly related to a specific instrument (weapon). That instrument has to have caused a specific life-threatening injury.  We have to be specific.  If a gunshot victim is found, we have to determine who exactly pulled the trigger.  We have to determine what their intent was to make the charges appropriate-deliberate or accidental?  We have to identify the specific gun; if the suspect is caught with three guns we can’t just say “it had to be one of these three….” We have to have proof.

In too many dog fatalities we miss the mark.  A person is mauled and two dogs are found in the house.  The verdict is “the dog(s) did it” and stops there.  Exactly which dog did it doesn’t come up; all present are guilty by association.  This happens despite the fact that the technology to identify the individual dog, and the individual bite that caused death, are available.  Too many times the dog(s) present are killed on the scene by first responders and the bodies are never processed or even given a detailed examination.  No behavioral evidence, a critical part of this puzzle, is gotten because no evaluation of the dogs is performed. Bite molds are not taken, stomach sampling doesn’t occur, and jaws and coats are not processed for blood and other physical evidence-they are simply disposed of.

This should be a major issue.  I am directly aware of at least one case in which an agency determined “the dog did it” and conducted no crime scene investigation.  Days later the death was determined to be from other causes-a murder.  The suspect, sadly, was the one-in-a-million that actually exercised his right to remain silent.  No evidence, no investigation-and a child murderer walked free.

But, as Billy Mills used to say, “Wait, Wait-There’s More!”  In a dog attack fatality the instrument used, the weapon if you will, is a living, breathing, semi-independent creature.  Dogs have the ability to act with, and without, direction.  They may not have the ability to make conscious moral choices like humans (that is too anthropomorphic for me), but they do behave in patterns that are reinforced, or made more likely, by prior human action.  Their behavior tends to make logical sense-seen from a dog’s perspective-and is affected by prior actions and training.  Some of that training and reinforcement is deliberate on the part of a human, and some is inadvertent, but both can be just as deadly.  We talked about those factors in the discussion of directed and non-directed aggression.  An investigator needs to know how the suspect dog(s) were affected by human action before the attack.

To adequately determine the past conditioning of the dog, and the factors that led up to killing the victim, we have to do a number of things. First we can have a skilled evaluator put hands on the dog. Evaluate the dog and see what it does and how it acts under at least limited circumstances. Next we have to talk to humans that have previously interacted with the dog.  We have to interview the owner/trainer as to what they did, or did not do. We need to talk to Veterinary staff that may have dealt with the dog.  We need to get a picture of what made that dog tick, and as best we can understand how that dog saw the world.  Was this a strong, focused, confident dog that was protecting his territory or standing firm against a perceived challenge? Or was this a fearful dog just trying to make the scary thing go away.  Saying that the dog killed someone was because “it was in its nature” or that “it just went off” is a cop out.  We don’t accuse people of crimes because “those people are just like that.” We need to know, or at least try to know, what particularly caused this dog to act as it did.

  Publicly, fatal dog attacks get lots of visibility. I was contacted by a friend after working on one particular case because the investigation was covered in the newspaper Pravda. Yes, Pravda the newspaper in the Russian Republic. A child killed in West Virginia, USA, gets coverage in Russia.  That shows how volatile and messy these cases can be.

All of these things, and a host of other bits, add up to a specialized case that demands attention. Someone has died, and that someone deserves the best we can give them. That best includes a detailed and specialized investigation. Lives are at risk here-those lost and those that will be lost in the future in similar cases.  So yes, investigating fatal dog attacks is a big deal.  Homicide always is.

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