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Shootings of Dogs by Police Not Unusual

March 12, 2005|Matt Lait, Scott Glover and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

One out of every four times Los Angeles police officers intentionally fired their guns during the last 20 years, the target was not a man; it was man's best friend.

Though the killing of a pit bull by an officer three weeks ago sparked anger among animal rights activists, LAPD data show that shooting incidents involving dogs are commonplace.

Since 1985, police have shot at more than 465 dogs, killing at least 200 and wounding at least 140, according to incident reports.

The standard an officer must follow when shooting a dog is the same as for shooting a person: as a last resort to avoid death or serious injury. When dogs are involved, officers often believe they are going to be bitten, which is why many of the animals shot by police were pit bull terriers, Rottweilers and other breeds that have reputations for being vicious.

Police said that was the case Feb. 16, when LAPD Officer Gina Iglesias shot and killed Teri, a pit bull in downtown Los Angeles. Teri was the pride of animal lovers who find homes for stray dogs, and had been featured in a calendar put out by the organization Downtown Dog Rescue.

According to police, Teri bared her teeth and seemed on the verge of attacking Iglesias and other officers who were on bike patrol and riding in an alley off 7th Place. Local volunteers who rescue dogs and workers in the industrial neighborhood on the eastern edge of downtown condemned the shooting as unnecessary.

Comparing the rate of dog shootings with those of other police agencies is difficult because there are no nationwide statistics. In New York, with a population more than twice as large as Los Angeles' and a police force nearly four times as big as the LAPD, officers have shot at 803 dogs since 1990.

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, though smaller than the Los Angeles Police Department, has shot at more animals over the last decade. Though LAPD officers have shot at an average of about 26 dogs a year in that period, sheriff's deputies have fired at an average of 36 animals a year, almost all of them dogs.

Randall Lockwood, a psychologist and animal behaviorist with the Humane Society of the United States who has worked with police agencies on issues relating to dogs, said most officers are not adequately trained to handle confrontations with aggressive dogs. Lockwood said he thought the number of dogs shot at by LAPD officers was "surprisingly high."

"Police departments throughout the country need to develop better training so officers can more accurately assess which dogs are life-threatening and dangerous and which ones are not," Lockwood said.

"Our opinion is that often, lethal use of force is not required or justified," he said. "In many cases, a shooting is a knee-jerk reaction by an officer not familiar with dogs. We have to acknowledge that there are situations where they have to shoot a dog, but we feel that's relatively rare."

Growling dogs baring sharp teeth can present frightening situations for police officers, officials said. And if dogs charge at officers, sometimes there is little they can do but shoot to protect themselves, they said.

"Look at what our officers face," said Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell, who oversees the department's review of all officer-involved shootings. "There are areas of the city where packs of dogs are running around loose, with no leash and no license. Often, vicious dogs are owned by people in the most high-crime areas that the officers are being called to."

McDonnell, who was not surprised by the number of canine shootings over the years, said officers are trained to shoot dogs only as a last resort.

Police agencies throughout the country have grappled with controversial dog shootings, some of which have resulted in more public outcry than shootings of people.

Such was the case with the New Year's Day 2003 killing of Patton, a terrier-bulldog, during a traffic stop on Interstate 40 in Tennessee.

Patton's owners were pulled over in the mistaken belief that they had committed a robbery. As the dog's owners were held at gunpoint, Patton climbed out of the car and, according to the Cookeville, Tenn., police officer who shot him, "charged toward me growling and in an aggressive manner."

Patton's owners, however, told the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville that the dog was "as harmless as Scooby-Doo" and was wagging his tail when he was shot.

The shooting resulted in widespread criticism of the police, and the city paid $77,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the dog's owners. The department also started a training program to enable officers to better deal with potentially dangerous dogs.

In Los Angeles, no easily discernible trends emerge from an analysis of LAPD shooting data maintained by the Los Angeles Times.

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