The Salt Lake City Police Department is trying to get ahead of public outrage over an officer’s shooting of an alleged aggressive dog in its fenced backyard during a neighborhood search for a child later found asleep in his own basement.
The 3-year-old boy, described as non-verbal and unresponsive to his name being called, was reported missing by his parents from his home near 2500 South and Fillmore Street (1400 East) about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. A door-to-door neighborhood search ensued.
The child was located about the same time one of the searching police officers entered the backyard of absent neighbor Sean Kendell’s home. The officer claimed Kendell’s 2-year-old, 110-pound Weimaraner, "Geist," aggressively confronted him. Two shots were fired, killing the dog.
SLCPD said that given the emergency nature of the search, when there was no answer to knocks on the front door of Kendell’s home at 2400 S. 1500 East, the officer — unaware the boy had been found — decided to entered the backyard to look for the boy.
As news of the shooting spread on Thursday, questions arose from Kendell, animal advocates and the public about why the officer did not first use non-lethal means — such as a Taser, pepper spray or baton — to defend himself.
SLCPD Sgt. Robin Heiden said the incident was being reviewed by the department’s Internal Affairs unit, though the officer — who was uninjured — involved remained on duty.
Gene Bairschmidt, executive director of the Humane Society of Utah, questioned the decision to apparently shoot first, even as he offered his organization’s expertise to help the SLCPD explore ways to avoid a repeat of the incident.
"Shooting should not be the ‘go to’ first response when officers, who we know have a difficult job, are confronted by a dog, especially when the animal is confined to its own property," he said.
The organization asked for "full disclosure" of the SLCPD’s internal investigation into the incident, along with its plans to better address confrontations with perceived aggressive animals in the future.
Police Chief Chris Burbank confirmed that his office had been in contact with Kendell, hoping to set up a meeting next week to discuss the issue. The chief also has opened discussions with the Humane Society "to discuss the dynamics of dog encounters."
Further, the department will be reviewing a training module offered by the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing that, among other things, addresses animal encounters.
Burbank also invited concerned citizens to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to share in "a free and respectful exchange of opinions on this issue."
As of Friday morning, more than 100 emails had been received and the number was steadily climbing, said Detective Dennis McGowan. The SLCPD’s Facebook page also was awash with reactions, overwhelmingly critical, and many of them calling for the officer’s termination.
As for the dog’s owner, he said he was grieving the loss of "my best friend," hiking and sleeping partner, who he found lying dead in the grass with a gunshot wound in the head when he returned home.
He told KUTV News that he does not believe his dog was a threat to the officer, but reacting like any dog would to a stranger intruding on its home turf.
The growing controversy has given birth to a "Justice for Geist" Facebook page. As of late Friday morning, it was approaching 5,000 "likes."
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