Paws up, don’t shoot: Activists say cops shooting dogs is a problem

Protest march on state Capitol planned for October 25

Law-enforcement agencies don’t actually use dogs in target practice, but activists say better training is needed to stop the inadvertent killing of animals during police action.

Law-enforcement agencies don’t actually use dogs in target practice, but activists say better training is needed to stop the inadvertent killing of animals during police action.

photo illustration by HAYLEY DOSHAY

Jayme Kathleen Francis was drowsing off in her bedroom one evening last spring, when a swarm of cops mistook her duplex for the scene of a fight and entered.

Wrapped in her arms was Copper, a 6-year-old boxer who liked to dance on his hind legs and wave his nub in the air. Informed of the officers’ presence, Francis roused from her sleep to put her dog into the backyard before dealing with the confusion. He never made it that far.

As Copper padded a few feet in front of her, Francis heard a loud crack and saw what looked like crimson glitter wisp through the air.

A veteran Modesto Police Department officer had fired a bullet into Copper’s face.

The dog would later die on a veterinarian’s table, another four-legged victim of a police shooting—something critics say is a needlessly routine occurrence.

“Once I looked into it, I realized how common it was,” Francis told SN&R. “It turned my stomach.”

A nationwide animal rights group with a chapter based in Sacramento, called Freeze Don’t Shoot-California, is hoping to tap into that disgust during an October 25 march on the state Capitol. Francis will be among the speakers calling for reform in officer training and accountability.

There are no solid estimates on how many pets are injured or killed each year by peace officers. In the past six years, 22 dogs have been shot by sheriff’s department personnel in the unincorporated areas of Sacramento County, though none this year. Sheriff’s departments in El Dorado and Yolo counties didn’t respond to requests for data. The Elk Grove Police department said it doesn’t track how many animals officers shoot.

Then again, agencies aren’t required to report how many humans they shoot, to say nothing of four-legged casualties. In lieu of a dead dog database, pissed-off owners have turned to social media to share their grisly accounts and online media reports.

In May of last year, a California Highway Patrol officer killed two huskies—one of them accidentally—after receiving reports of wolves attacking a deer and running into people’s yards in Carmichael, news outlets reported. The canines’ owner had been searching for his pets for two days, and says they escaped his apartment while chasing an intruder but weren’t violent.

In November 2012, an officer with the Sacramento Police Department’s SWAT team shot a dog that reportedly charged while serving a search warrant at home in Del Paso Heights.

In May of that same year, another Sacramento police officer shot and killed two dogs after entering a backyard in the Oak Park neighborhood to investigate a drug case. Police say the dogs charged the officer, but a neighbor said she didn’t believe one of the hounds to be aggressive, reported CBS Sacramento.

Animal activists aren’t ready to say that cops are shooting more dogs than before. But they do believe these encounters are avoidable and sometimes unprompted.

“I don’t want to be a victim of an officer cutting across my property or getting the wrong address and destroying my pets because they don’t know any other means of confronting a dog,” said Rae Kelly, a Sacramento dog owner and the statewide organizer for Freeze Don’t Shoot, which began nationally in June.

Policy makers have finally gotten the message.

Earlier this year, state Senator Ron Calderon introduced a bill to require canine training for officers, but it’s unlikely to advance because of the author’s unrelated court troubles. The state agency that writes the rulebook for cops is already developing its own pet-centric training curriculum, however.

Representatives of the state Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training said they met in August with members of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles to discuss creating a four-hour block of instruction. According to a monthly POST report, the training would help officers better assess the family dogs they encounter, “and correspondingly modify their own actions based on the relational needs of the dog.”

The Citrus Heights Police Department, which has operated its own animal control division the last few years, has already developed non-lethal contingencies for confronting dogs during warrant searches and other operations. One of the most effective—and least deadly—methods, it turns out, is a fire extinguisher. “A lot of times, that scares the dog or will deter it,” said Sgt. Mike Wells, a department spokesman. “We absolutely don’t want to be shooting a dog.”

As a result, Citrus Heights police have only shot one dog in the department’s eight-year existence.

In the case of Copper, Modesto police acknowledge they entered the wrong duplex. According to a police incident summary, officers entered through a sliding glass door after announcing their presence. They say a suspicious male retreated to the back while refusing to identify himself.

“While trying to get to the male, an officer was confronted by an aggressive dog,” the summary reads. “The male was asked to take control of the dog. The dog continued to chase the officer. The dog was shot by the officer.”

Francis contends otherwise. As she led Copper toward the backyard’s glass-panel door, she said she heard a man’s voice call out, “Dog! Dog!” And then the gunshot. She said there were several signs that animals resided there—including leashes near the front porch, an unlocked security screen that provided a clear view into the residence and a literal sign by the door saying there were dogs inside. “They had to walk through their potty area,” she added.

Francis consulted a lawyer a few months later, but didn’t pursue it. “It’s not going to bring my Copper back.”

Her daughter did file an official complaint with the Modesto Police Department. In a response letter dated August 13, 2013, police Chief Galen Carroll wrote that the involved officer was “exonerated” of wrongdoing following “an extensive investigation.”

Francis said no one interviewed her or any of the other people inside her home who witnessed the shooting.

Citing pending litigation, Modesto police spokeswoman Heather Graves declined to release details of the investigation. “I can say, however, that our hearts go out to the family for their loss, as we understand pets are often a member of the family,” she wrote in an email.

The incident left its troubling imprint. Francis finds herself wondering whether police deliberately entered her home to kill the dog she referred to as her “grandson.” She also worries about the special-needs son who witnessed the bloody aftermath and has been unable to process the loss.

“Now he will absolutely … hate cops,” Francis said of her 10-year-old.