Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Dogs, Police, and Use of Force-Part 1 of 3

It seems that lately I can't open my inbox without a note of one kind or another about a Police Officer using deadly force against a dog. Loose dogs, pet dogs, big dogs, little dogs-dogs charging, barking, running away or allegedly simply standing there. Is this on the rise? Is there an epidemic of the use of deadly force against pets? I am not convinced either way-I suspect that is may be a result of the speed of, and breadth by which these stories are spread due to social media and citizen journalists, bypassing mainstream avenues-but the jury is still out. The problem is, these cases are gaining a great amount of attention, not just here in the US but across a surprisingly global audience. So I want to take a few minutes of your time and talk about the issue, the perceptions, and possible solutions to the perceived problem.

First off: full disclosure time. I am a retired Police Lieutenant. I served 22 years with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, Jacksonville, Florida. I never shot a dog during my career. I am biased-in most cases I will go out of my way to defend a brother Officer, even if I may have personal misgivings that the incident could have been handled better. I understand the stresses, the pressure, and the need for immediate decision making in critical incidents. I also have no patience for bad cops. I am not here to criticize, or defend anyone. I want to look at contacts between officers and pets and try to get both the pets and the officers home in one, safe package.

With that out of the way let's look at the problem. How do we reduce conflict between dogs and Police Officers? In what situations are these conflicts occurring, and what tools do we have to reduce these incidents? Where does responsibility lie?

There are several general categories of contact between police and dogs that seem to encompass most of the situations. I am going to break them into groups: High-Risk encounters; Emergency responses; Public Safety encounters; Low Risk encounters; Seizures; and Nuisance encounters.

High-Risk encounters are the easiest to classify, and perhaps the clearest of the bunch for us to respond to. These are the drug and violent crime raids. SWAT or another unit is making a fast, forcible entry into dangerous territory. The bad guys are likely armed, and likely have little to lose by resisting. The dogs in these situations are potential weapons. The officers will likely also be confronted by humans bearing other weapons, like firearms. The potential for officer injury or death is high. No one in this situation has the time to conduct a lengthy negotiation with a hostile animal, even if that animal is acting aggressively due to mistreatment or fear. Perhaps I am a speciest, but human safety comes first. That said, a High-Risk situation is not a free ticket to blast away at any animals present, any more than it is a free ride to shoot any humans out of hand (we will leave terrorist encounters out of this equation). There are tools that can be used to reduce risk from animals that are quick and reasonable.

The best of those tools is information. No one raids a location without at least some advance intelligence about the location and the potential occupants. Pre-raid surveillance should include establishing whether there are animals present, and whether those animals seem to present a valid threat. If the intelligence establishes that the bad guy has trained, aggressive dogs that are little more than four-legged weapons those dogs are a clear threat. On the other hand, a hound dog that spends his days hanging out on the front porch, probably not so much. Either way, the presence of the animals has been noted, and contingency plans can be put in place. Frankly, if my intelligence said the dogs were trained to attack I would be more proactive in removing the threat.

In some cases this degree of information may not be present-yet there are still indicators. Are there dogs chained up? Can you get past them without releasing them? Are there less lethal methods, such as OC spray, that can be rapidly deployed to deter or temporarily disable the dogs while still allowing the officers to respond safely to the more likely human threat? Can the entry team, and the suspects, be isolated quickly and safely from the dogs? Can the dogs simply be taken out of the equation?

These are High-Risk situations, and as such there are clear limits to the amount of time and effort that can be devoted to animals during entry and securing the scene. But most of the situations in which animals and Police come into conflict are not High-Risk encounters.

Second on my list is Emergency Response. These cases are where a human is in immediate danger or has been injured and a dog is "protecting" the victim. These are survival situations. If the dog is not removed quickly a human may die. These, like High-Risk encounters, don't give a responding officer much time. Other emergency responders, like medical services, may be on scene and trying to get to the victim. These situations are touchy in that the dog is doing what it is supposed to do-protecting its owner. Less lethal alternatives should be on the front burner here. The dog doesn't understand that the strangers are there to help. Time is of the essence, but compassion for both the human victim and the dog is a clear consideration.

Of course if the dog is the source of the injury, or reasonably appears  to be the source of the injury, the game is changed. The dog must be removed before doing more damage, and the person's injuries addressed. Even here deadly force is not necessarily the first choice. Depending on the positioning of the dog and victim, shooting the dog may present a clear danger to the victim. Disengaging the dog is the first priority, but sacrificing the victim in the process, or even adding to the victim's injuries, is not an option. For evidence I personally prefer the dog in such a case be kept alive if possible, but human safety reigns supreme. Still, initial disengagement of the dog may better proceed using less lethal options, if for nothing more than separation of victim and target for a clear shot, with a safe(r) backdrop.

One factor to be considered in cases where the dog is the source, or apparent source, of the injury/threat is physical evidence. A dog destroyed as a result of a serious or life threatening attack is evidence, possibly of a crime. We do not casually destroy evidence. Evidence is what we need to hold a human, often the owner, responsible for their actions, or lack of action. In the rare case that a dog must be destroyed on scene for immediate safety, any deadly force (gunshot) deployed should be to the dog's center of mass-the middle of its body. Head shots are not ideal-not only will the gunshot likely damage the dog's jaws, a potentially critical piece of evidence, but the head of a dog is a difficult target to hit. Imagine firing at a grapefruit bouncing down the street. Additionally, anyone who has examined the skull of a large dog will tell you that the skull is a very thick chunk of bone, with lots of angled surfaces. Even a police duty round may have trouble penetrating, especially if it hits at an odd angle or the head is moving away at the moment of impact. In an emergency, just like when defending against people, body shots are the most reasonable and reliable.

I would remind all readers that the purpose of police use of force, particularly deadly force, is not to "shoot to kill". The justification for use of deadly force is to remove a credible and immediate threat-no more. If, for instance, I am confronted by an armed subject, I am not authorized to "shoot to kill". I am only lawfully allowed to shoot until the threat is removed. Thus, if I fire once, miss, and the bad guy drops his weapon (been there) I have to hold my fire. I can't "finish him off", no matter how much I might want to. The legal cause is suddenly no longer valid. If I shoot a person once and they fall and surrender, or can't continue the assault, then the incident is over. If I shoot again I have violated the law and used excessive force.

I would suggest that Officers who have to deploy lethal force against dogs take the same factors into consideration-you are shooting to remove the threat. If the first shot takes the dog down and he is unable to re-engage, the incident is over. The next proper step is to contact Animal Control or whomever is responsible for providing, in your jurisdiction, emergency care for a wounded animal. A decision to "finish him off" or to "euthanize" such an animal should be left to a Veterinarian and the owner. It is not the responsibility of the Police to determine the appropriateness of veterinary care-nor are they trained to do so.

Next time: Part 2; Public Safety and Low Risk encounters.