Police killings of dogs violate owners’ rights, advocates say

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Capital News Service 

LANSING – Incidents of police shooting non-threatening pet dogs are more common than you’d think, animal advocates say.

“It is so common in Detroit, there’s a form for it,”  said Royal Oak lawyer Chris Olson. “They’re called destruction of animal reports.”

Such incidents are unfortunate, not widespread and often happen when an officer feels threatened, said Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

But there is no statewide data collected on such reports. Olson said destruction of animal reports from 2018-2020 showed around 20 incidents involving the Detroit Police.

Most police shooting incidents involve animals, according to a 2011 report from the U.S.  Department of Justice. 

Laurel Matthews, a program specialist for the department’s Community Oriented Policing Services, called it an epidemic in 2017 and estimated that nationwide 25-30 dogs are killed daily.

The past two years similar complaints have been reported to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals every one to two weeks nationwide, Catie Cryar, assistant manager of that group, wrote in an email. That includes some cases from Michigan, but it is limited to complaints and not the total occurrences.

There’s no reason to think the issue has improved, Olson said. He has represented dog owners in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin and has several pending, including one involving a Genesee County deputy. 

Experts say most shootings stem from a desire for safety.

Police don’t want to shoot dogs, said Theresa Sumpter, the executive director of the rescue group Detroit Pit Crew. But police often assume dogs are trained to guard certain illegal activities.

“When you’re doing the wrong thing and police show up to your house, there’s a chance that your dog will be shot,” Sumpter said.

The Detroit police have been working to prevent this by involving groups like hers, she said. In fact, Detroit Pit Crew helped secure five dogs without injury on a recent raid. 

We should encourage police to use nonlethal force, she said. But in most cases she feels the owners should be punished for putting their dog in that position.

But police can’t ignore peoples’ rights when laws are broken, Olson said. And in some cases there is no illegal activity.

Brad Brock recently called the Inkster police when someone flashed a gun at him. The officer who arrived turned his attention to Brock’s mastiff, Moose, who had not yet completed his service dog training and was unleashed. 

Brock tried to demonstrate his control by making the dog sit. But, when it walked toward him, the officer shot the dog multiple times. Brock was ticketed with a misdemeanor charge for a “vicious dog at large.”

State law requires dogs to be leashed. An officer can issue a ticket for dogs off the leash, said Michael Steinberg, a University of Michigan law professor. But officers have liability for shootings without imminent threats.

“The mere fact that a dog is off leash is not authority to kill the dog,” he said.

Steinberg said this can violate the fourth amendment protection from unreasonable seizure.

Michigan law considers dogs property, so compensation can be limited, said Michigan State University law professor David Favre. This limits many lawyers’ willingness to take these cases.

Brock said he’s not looking for money, he wants justice for his dog.

“If somebody shot and killed a police dog they could go to jail,” Brock said. “What makes their dog any different than mine?”

Some police undergo training with the Humane Society to reduce these incidents. More than 100 in Michigan were trained this year, said Molly Tamulevich, the Michigan state director of the Humane Society of the United States. 

Brock said his case and others show a need for more training that emphasizes less lethal force in these situations. 

The officer made a poor call, Brock said. But until there are more protections, Brock urges dog owners across the state to leash their dog regardless.

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