Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dogs, Police, and Use of Force-part 2 of 4

As I mentioned last time I have broken up my posts on conflicts between Police Officers and dogs into three parts. Last time we talked about a very limited set of circumstances, primarily high-risk raids where there are potentially-or for sure-armed bad guys that probably have not been the most responsible dog owners. These cases are rare, and no one should think that procedures used in these radical situations to protect human lives should be the norm in day to day encounters. They are worst case scenarios. I'm not going to dissect all the potential causes of such actions (Are all drug dealers really violent? Is the "war on  drugs" effective?) as these questions are far bigger than this column and deserve long, hard discussion.

That post was an overview of the minority of cases. Most of the negative encounters we hear about, most of the cases involving use of deadly force by Law Enforcement these days, are centered around much lower risk, day in and day out encounters. Here is where positive intervention, training, and prevention strategies can make the most difference.

Public Safety and Low Risk Encounters are probably the most common cases where Police Officers and pets come into conflict. Let's break these two down into their components first.

Public Safety cases are, obviously, cases where the Police have been called because someone sees an animal, most likely a dog, and most likely running at large, that they perceive is a threat to themselves or others. There are two keys here that we need to note: the animal is at large and the reporting person perceives the animal to be at risk.

Low Risk Encounters are those where Police Officers come across dogs in the course of doing something else. These animals are most often not at large but are on their own property. There is no reporting person here-the Officer is the person directly involved in the contact-and the Officer is the one directly perceiving the dog's behavior.

Now, there are significant differences in the two kinds of cases, but there are several commonalities that we need to recognize. The first common quantity is this: WHY ARE YOU THERE?  What is the reason the officer is coming in contact with the dog, and what is the ultimate purpose of the contact?

In Public Safety encounters it seems to be pretty clear-the officer has been called to "protect the public". But protect who from exactly what? Is it to keep a charging dog from ravaging a schoolyard of kindergarten students, or is the goal a bit fuzzy? Is this a frightened dog trying to get home? Is this an injured dog that is reacting from the pain and fear of being hit by a car? Sure, the dog is at large-and that is a human failure. The human(s) responsible for the dog being uncontrolled should be held responsible for their actions-or lack of action. But is the dog really a threat-and as perceived by whom? Perhaps the goal here is really to stop the dog from running at large, and in doing so keep the public, and the dog safe.

Let's set the stage with an example. A police officer is dispatched to a dog running at large that is alleged to be "vicious". The officer gets on scene and indeed sees a dog running loose. Say it's even a big dog. The complainant comes up and tells the officer "The dog charged at me! Get rid of it!" The person continues to make excited statements that the dog is a danger, might bite someone, could kill all the children in the town...you get the picture.

So our faithful officer chases after the dog. The dog gets backed up against a corner. The officer approaches and the dog growls, baring its teeth. The officer now perceives a threat to himself, and with the excited allegations of the original complainant, draws his weapon, carefully checks for a safe backdrop, and when the dog again lunges towards him he fires once and kills the dog.

Simple, right? Wrong. Lets look at this from the dog's point of view.

The dog is a pet, licensed and tagged, that has escaped from his back yard because his owners have failed to secure the gate-or maybe the cable TV guy left it ajar. The dog follows his nose, meanders around the neighborhood, and looses track of where he is. He comes around a corner and sees something attractive (Squirrel!) and runs for it. Unfortunately, this dog has no experience with traffic and gets clipped by a car going past. The dog is now mildly hurt and frightened. He runs blindly. Running he rounds a corner and is confronted by a stranger (our trusty complainant). The dog startles, barks, and backs off from the scary person. Our complainant, not an experienced dog person, interprets the dog's sudden approach and bark as a "vicious attack" and calls it in.

The officer gets there, spots the dog, and gives chase. Now the dog is being chased by a new stranger, probably yelling, and freaking him out. So he runs, and tries to find-refuge, home, anywhere but where he is. The officer follows and the dog winds up cornered by this stranger. So the dog does the only thing he is hardwired to do-he backs up and gives clear signals in dog terms "You are scaring me! I am hurt and want to go home! Back off! I don't want to fight but I will if you push me!" The officer pushes forward again and the dog lunges, looking for a way out. He just wants to escape to safety and go home. A shot is fired and the dog is dead.

You may say "Well, that is all good but you set this up to make the cop the bad guy." Sorry, but no. This sort of conflict happens all of the time. And I am not saying the police officer was bad-he just didn't see the situation the same way the dog did. He probably didn't have the training to recognize the signals the dog was giving, and didn't have enough knowledge of dog behavior to understand what was really happening. He saw exactly what he had been prepared-even briefly-by the complainant to see.

This is a situation that we, as police officers, have to face every day with human subjects. We are told by one party that the other person is bad, evil, violent, etc. They want us to proceed on their information, and often that information is deliberately slanted to favor their position. We are trained extensively to be cautious of this-we are told "There are three sides to every case: person 1's story, person 2's story, and the truth."

In alleged public safety conflicts we have to bear the same in mind. We don't know if our complainant was bitten badly as a child and has emotional aftereffects of that incident. The person may just not like dogs. The person may have what they feel are valid concerns because they may not have extensive experience with dogs. Or the dog may in fact be nasty.

But we have to return to the question: why is the officer there? To protect the public, right? So what strategies are available, and how many did the officer try before proceeding to lethal force?

In this case there were numerous possibilities, none of which the officer took advantage of. Protecting others means isolating the danger from potential victims, in this case the loose dog. How can we do that?

First, use situational awareness. What is that? Look around. Pay attention to details. In this sort of case, what does the dog look like? Is he relatively clean? Does he have a collar and tags? Maybe this is a pet rather than a long-term stray. If so, the dog is likely to have a positive relationship with at least some people. Try letting the conflict de-escalate. If the dog is in an area where there is room to back off, do so. Stop chasing. Slow down. There is no hurry.

If the dog looks like a pet, try getting the dog to come up. Relax your posture, present a less threatening demeanor, and for crying out loud STOP YELLING.

Pets often like riding in the car. If you are driving a patrol car you likely have a cage in the back. Try opening the back door and then get away from the car to let the dog have a clear path to the open door. Try saying "Let's go for a ride!" Lots of dogs love rides. Once the dog is in the back seat the conflict is over-you now have a controlled situation where you-or Animal Control, or a Vet, or even the owner, can safely remove the dog.

Try an open can of dog food to attract, and calm the dog. Even better a can of cat food. Dogs love cat food. Stinky, nasty cat food. Toss the food near the dog to make friends. Maybe even into your car. Just remember to get the little cans with the pull tabs on top-this is no time to look for a can opener.

If the dog is backed into an enclosed area, use that to your advantage. Pull you car across the opening (and then maybe open the back door). Is there a sidewalk table, or maybe one of those sign twirlers? Temporarily appropriate the table or sign to contain the dog, keeping only minimum pressure on him. Improvise with what you have. Let the dog retreat and calm down. Is the dog in front of an open garage? THEN CLOSE THE GARAGE DOOR!  Even if the dog doesn't live there you have him contained. You can then safely contact the property owner or resident at your leisure. If the dog damages something in the garage, so what? Dog owners are responsible, in most jurisdictions, for any damage their dog causes. The report for chewing up someone's bicycle is a lot easier than the paperwork-and extended drama-of using deadly force.

Sure, someone is always going to come up with a "But I did that and it didn't work..." There's always one in every crowd. And honestly, every situation is different, and I can't give "What if" responses for everything.

But I can give you solid strategies to apply across the board:

1) Try and look at what is really happening-don't proceed with only one account of the situation. Pay attention-use your eyes and ears-use situational awareness.
2) Try and understand from the dog's point of view what he may be seeing and use that in your favor. Information is strength. Try and reduce the stress the dog may be feeling and allow him to deescalate his responses to threats he perceives.
3) Remember the mantra of the military special units: IMPROVISE, ADAPT, OVERCOME. You probably don't have access to the perfect tools when you need them, but you do have access to the most important tool you can have-your brain. Use it.
4) Remember why you are there. Your assignment is probably not search and destroy. Your job is to contain the dog while keeping others safe. Look to handle the real problem. Remember you are there to drain the swamp.
5) Work with your Animal Control or shelter personnel. Your immediate job is containment and separation of the public and the dog. Let Animal Control deal with the capture. That is what they are trained to do, and they honestly probably do it better than you. Most Animal Control Officer are unarmed, so they have learned ways to take in far more difficult animals in more circumstances without resorting to deadly force. Let them do their jobs.

You may have noticed I changed the title of this to part 2 of 4 instead of 3. This has run longer than I expected, so I am going to break here. I'll be back-quicker this time-with Low Risk Encounters next time.