As many of you know, part of the work I do is responding to cases where police officers use deadly force against pets. Some cases are clearly justified, and some...not so much. Often my involvement revolves around one of two focus points: reactive assessment of what has already happened, or proactive training and advice towards preventing future negative incidents.
Looking at these two main topics, there is an underlying theme: Change. We need to effect change across practices in the policing system that affect interactions between police officers and domestic pets. It's not that the system is somehow inherently flawed: instead, we have deficits in practices that need to be brought up to date, recognizing changing expectations. We, within the Law Enforcement community, need to recognize the need for change in our interactions with animals, and we need to accept that change.
One of the basic principles of human behavior is that desires lead to beliefs, and beliefs lead to action. Some critics have deeply held beliefs that conflict with our own. Sometimes those beliefs conflict with scientific and legal principles. But people tend to base their opinions on belief rather than on fact. Changing belief is hard. If we want to meaningfully change actions, our accepted practices, we need to change the beliefs that drive them. To do that we need to accept that belief has to adapt over time to drive our actions and to allow us to adapt to changing expectations.
The belief that a police officer must complete his/her mission, no matter what, is deeply ingrained. We start down a path of action, and we tend to continue on that path, even when the situation changes mid-stride. Inertia is the tendency for an object in motion to remain in motion. When we, as officers, set out to do our job we can get completion inertia. We tend to get blindered, focused on completing the mission now. But we have to learn to ask: is this particular matter so important that it must be done now? Can we accomplish our mission with a little more compassion and a little less inertia?
Sometimes the completion inertia mindset is justified. When a violent bad guy needs to be arrested, the officer cannot, should not, just walk away if there is resistance. A central duty of a police officer is to catch bad guys and try and keep them from harming the good guys. Done deal.
The law reflects this. Statutes particularly state that a police officer has no duty to retreat when confronted with resistance. The word "NO" doesn't really enter into the police mindset when it comes from other than the officer themselves.
Once upon a not so distant past, resistance of any sort precipitated predictable force. One of the basic lessons I learned as a rookie Patrolman: the level of resistance given precipitated a directly proportional ass beating. Resist arrest mildly and get bounced around. Spit on an officer and risk a good thrashing. Hurt an officer and you would inevitably go to jail by way of the hospital. Shoot an officer, fatally or not, and you better have funeral plans.
But in dealing with animals and animal encounters, we may have to step back to move forward. Animals, domestic pets, don’t understand that we have a mission to complete. They have their own mission, and those missions may conflict. Officers may fail to recognize that these animals are not “resisting” their actions, but that they are behaving in predictable ways based on their perception of the world. We need to learn to be able to shift in mid-stream to recognize those conflicts and avoid them, rather than letting inertia carry us forward, blindly, meeting force with force.
The base criteria used to justify action is what the officer believed at the time of the deployment of force. Officers state that they believed they were at risk of death or severe bodily injury. They believed that they had no option other than deadly force.
Recently there was a human shooting during a drug arrest/foot pursuit, and the body camera clearly showed the fleeing suspect turn, gun in hand and point the gun directly at the pursuing officer. That was a clean, sadly unavoidable shooting. No one can expect a police officer to get killed or wounded by a violent, armed suspect. The desire of the officer is to go home safely, the belief (reasonable here) is that the officer’s life is in immediate jeopardy, and the action in this case was to use reasonable and understandable force.
The stated belief of imminent death is regularly invoked in use of force incidents involving dogs. The officer says that he or she was “afraid for their life” and seem to expect that their belief makes everything that happens allowable. Their belief tells them that facing a dog is the same as facing a human with a gun. They see, they claim, no option other than deadly force. They believe that they “don’t have time” or they don’t believe that the tools available will work. They fail to accurately assess options.
But belief is often unqualified, supported by feelings rather than facts. Objectively, an officer’s belief in the availability of options, or lack thereof, and in the efficacy of other tools, may be as flawed as any other belief. Unqualified belief can conflict badly with both facts and the realities of the law. One fact, for instance, is that no officer has been killed in the line of duty by dog attack since 1936. That fatality, and the four others documented in US history before that, were due to infection or rabies, not mauling injuries.
Under the law, belief has to be reasonable, based on the training and experience of the person acting. Assessment of a situation needs to be grounded in facts, in competent training, in the understanding of what options really exist, and an understanding of how to readily put those options into action. Yet officers equate the level of threat presented by dogs to that of guns, which kill hundreds of officers yearly. Belief equates two very different risk situations. The belief that these threats are equal is not based on fact.
Reasonability, under the law, is based on what a "well trained" officer is expected to know and do. When it comes to animal issues, Police Departments are falling down in this training. Yes, a few states now mandate canine encounter training. I was part of developing and implementing the program now set by the California Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission. Chicago Humane built a similar program a few years ago. Colorado has a training program.
Through the National Sheriffs' Association and the National Coalition on Violence Against Animals, a team I am proud to be part of is trying to develop a nationwide training curriculum based on solid behavioral science and providing officers knowledge and tools to increase their safety, and the safety of pets.
More widely, however, existing training is mostly somewhere between inadequate and embarrassing. Officers are not being given the tools that they need to move from ungrounded belief to solid assessment of options.
Establishing solid training is the first step in reducing these incidents and improving the ability of officers to respond reasonably. Training needs to be widespread and frequent. Lessons need to be taught and integrated into policy, and repeated until they become part of the fabric of an officer’s regular thought process.
Another part of integrating necessary change comes from the top. Administrations of Departments must recognize that policy must not only be present, but respected. Departments must show a willingness to enforce policy evenly, fairly, and most of all consistently. A department that has a policy that is regularly ignored without consequence effectively has no policy at all.
Lastly, Departments must recognize that there is a potential for error, and that it is essential to acknowledge error when it occurs. In Law Enforcement, we don’t like that, because for such a long time we have been caught up in another belief: the belief that we are always right.
We need to work harder to achieve change, from inside and out. We need to change our practices, and our beliefs. We need to recognize that our actions have to be moderated by control and recognition of mission versus responsibility. We need to accept that we may be wrong, and correct those things that are wrong. We need to accept change in practice and belief so that an encounter with a pet doesn't become, as a song says, another sacrifice on the altar of "always right".