Prompted in part by several reports of attacks by pit bull terriers, the Los Angeles City Council approved an ordinance Tuesday to allow the city to impound dogs that bite people and, after a hearing, destroy the animals in the worst cases.
The council, by the same 12-0 vote, also approved an ordinance dealing with barking dogs. Both measures were signed into law by City Council President Pat Russell--in her last day on the council--acting for Mayor Tom Bradley, who is out of town. The ordinances take effect in 30 days.
"There isn't a council member here who wants to be cruel to animals," Councilman Joel Wachs said in support of the ordinances. "But the fact of the matter is that there are some bad dogs in this city, and there are some bad owners. And this city needs laws to handle them."
City animal control officials estimate that there are 25,000 dog bites and 5,000 complaints about barking dogs each year in Los Angeles. The ordinance governing dogs that bite was proposed two years ago by the late Councilman Howard Finn after a pit bull mauled two children in his San Fernando Valley district. A 2-year-old boy required 28 stitches on his head and neck after the October, 1985, attack. His 3-year-old sister required surgery for facial wounds. The dog was destroyed at the owner's request.
Animal rights advocates' objections to severe measures had delayed action on the ordinance, but it took on added urgency in recent weeks following a rash of highly publicized attacks by pit bulls throughout California.
In one case last week, a television news crew in Northeast Los Angeles filmed a pit bull mauling an animal control officer who had gone to investigate a complaint that the dog had bitten a girl and her father the night before. The attack left the officer with a crushed bone in one of her hands and puncture wounds, requiring surgery.
On Tuesday, Councilman Hal Bernson, who co-authored the dog control ordinance, urged his colleagues not to delay passage. "Had this ordinance been passed when it should have been passed, we could have averted the attack on the animal control officer and God knows how many others."
Until the ordinance takes effect, the city's only recourse in dealing with a dog that has attacked someone is to seek a court order to destroy the dog. That procedure has rarely been used because it is long and costly and "putting a dog to death is not the way to handle most dog problems," said Robert Rush, general manager of the city Department of Animal Regulation.
Also, city animal control officers now can pick up only dogs that are roaming. The city has been able to hold the pit bull that attacked the animal control officer as evidence in the criminal trial against the owner, accused of assault with a deadly weapon. For a dog to be impounded in a criminal case, Rush said, an officer must witness the attack.
The measure approved Tuesday empowers the Department of Animal Regulation to immediately impound a dog that has attacked someone in order to "assess its temperament," Rush said.
It also allows the department to hold a hearing to determine whether the animal should be destroyed immediately or whether conditions should be imposed on pet owners, such as muzzling the dog, posting warning signs on the property or putting the dog through obedience school. A decision on whether to destroy a dog, Rush said, will be based on a number of factors, including whether the attack was provoked, the dog's history of attacks and severity of the attack.
If an owner refuses to comply with the department's order, the owner will have to move the dog out of the city or allow it to be given to someone else. If the city cannot find a new owner for the dog within 45 days, the animal can be destroyed.
The city will also be able to prohibit recalcitrant owners from having another dog in the city for up to three years, subjecting them to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.
Owners will be able to appeal the department's action to the city's citizen-run Animal Regulation Commission. The council, however, will hear cases until voters could approve a City Charter amendment authorizing the commission to handle appeals.
Although attacks by pit bulls have received a great deal of publicity in recent weeks, Rush recommended that the ordinance apply to all dogs. He said records show that no single breed attacks more often than others, although he said the pit bull, because of the power of its jaws and tendency not to let go to once it bites, is capable of doing greater harm.
The second ordinance approved Tuesday calls for a similar hearing procedure to be used for the owners of dogs accused of repeatedly disturbing neighbors with excessive barking.
Besides imposing conditions on owners of barking dogs, the department will be able to levy civil penalties of up to $250. The owner of a dog accused of excessive barking could not be forced to move his dog out of the city or give it up until he is called to a department hearing at least three times.
The city attorney now can prosecute owners of barking dogs for violating the city's noise ordinance. Only about a dozen barking dog cases end up in the courts each year because they are regarded as a low priority by prosecutors, Rush said.
At a hearing in April, representatives of animal rights groups had protested that the ordinances would wrongly punish dogs instead of "irresponsible owners."
Bernson said after Tuesday's vote that, although he approves of Tuesday's ordinance, another is needed to establish misdemeanor penalties for owners of dogs.
Under the law approved Tuesday, Bernson said, "the poor dogs are going to take the brunt of the ordinance."
There are 216,346 licensed dogs in the City of Los Angeles; Rush said that if unlicensed dogs are counted, the number is about 300,000.