Los Angeles • The majority of shootings in most U.S. police departments involve animals, usually dogs, and experts say a new series of videos can help change often quick-trigger decisions fueled by fear.
“There will be times when police need to defend themselves because they are being attacked by a dog and don’t have a choice, but that is the minority of cases,” said Brian Kilcommons, a Southbury, Connecticut, dog behaviorist and trainer. He is featured in the five-part series that teaches officers to detect the warning signs of an aggressive dog and how to avoid using lethal force.
Efforts to change the way officers approach animals have emerged as dogs have become a central part of the American family and lawsuits have chipped away at the coffers of law enforcement agencies.
The free videos emerged from a 2011 study by a University of Illinois center and nonprofits including the National Canine Research Council, which promotes a better understanding of relationships with dogs. The U.S. Department of Justice helped. The study found a majority of police shootings involved animals, but it’s unknown how many dogs are shot nationwide every year.
In Milwaukee, where a tally was compiled for a lawsuit, they averaged 48 annually from 2000 to 2008. The number dropped to 28 in 2012, city officials said, as training increased.
Spread across the country, that’s too many dog deaths, said Stacey Coleman, executive director of the New York-based National Canine Research Council.
Officers have a lot to process when they respond to something like a domestic violence report, but determining whether a dog is agitated shouldn’t be overwhelming, said Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations.
In the videos, Kilcommons teaches officers to survey canine body language and not to approach a fearful dog that’s low to the ground with its tail tucked and ears flat to its head. He also says to watch for warning signs such as lunging, growling and exposed teeth.
There are ways for officers to avoid using guns, including putting an object like a trash can between them and the dog, carrying food that can be thrown as a distraction, blaring an air horn or using pepper spray, he says.
Officers “can’t change their behavior unless they have the tools and understand what to do with them,” said Kilcommons, who has trained 40,000 dogs and written nine books.
Dog shootings often lead to public distrust, lawsuits and grief, Coleman said.
The fatal shooting of a dog 18 months ago in the Los Angeles area prompted one successful claim. Arturo Gonzalez’s pit bull, Chico Blue, was in his gated yard when Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies came to ask about a shooting that wounded Gonzalez’s brother.
The deputies said they didn’t know how the dog got out of the yard but that Chico Blue foamed at the mouth as he walked down the driveway, according to court records. They threw a chair, sprayed the dog with mace and shot him twice with a handgun. The dog bled to death in a patrol car. One deputy said he felt his life was in danger, so he opened fire.
Gonzalez had been handcuffed and placed in a patrol car for his safety, court documents say. He was awarded $15,000 in a settlement that also made watching the videos mandatory for the first time.
Chico Blue’s dog house still sits in the backyard and his photos fill Gonzalez’s cellphone but, “I have no one to hold or scold or love anymore,” Gonzalez said.
The shooting “is unfortunate but it is a rare occurrence,” said Nicole Nishida, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s department, the largest one in the nation.
The department already has aggressive-animal training, she said. Two animals were shot this year, and 25 last year, including other animals like coyotes, Nishida said.
Rich Roberts, spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations in Sarasota, Florida, said the videos provide on-the-job training that can stem problems. It helps that they are only 5 to 10 minutes each and can be viewed during daily briefings.
“In hostile situations, the more you know about a dog, the better off you will be,” he said.