Mr. Chairman. Good morning. I have been a resident of the District of Columbia for 29 years. I am appearing today in my capacity as a private citizen and as an advocate for animals. Thank you for the opportunity to address an issue that is important to more than 20 percent of the citizens of the District of Columbia.
My sole purpose here today is to comment on my extremely favorable reaction to MPD Chief Cathy Lanier's and the Police Academy's prompt response with plans for a training program to address what is a low frequency but high impact, high risk problem. To put my comments on the MPD's very positive response in perspective, I will first describe my limited view of the problem, which is the unwarranted shootings of dogs by police officers in the District of Columbia.
I must say at the outset that the problem is not personal to me. My experiences with the MPD have been extremely favorable in the 29 years --- 25,000 walks --- I have walked my dogs in the District, a city, as you know, that is essentially without dog parks. My involvement with the problem stems from my concern for animals, and I believe that an unwarranted shooting of a dog by anyone is a form of animal cruelty. My contacts with this problem have been several.
In early 2005, after hearing about a horrific incident involving of a Montgomery Country police officer shooting a dog on its own stoop, I conducted an informal survey of several dozen police officers from various agencies functioning in DC to find out what kind of training they received on how to handle dogs. All except one said they received no training. The one exception -- not an MPD officer -- smiled and pointed to his gun. Several months later, in July 2005, I reported the results of this survey in a letter to the editor published in The Washington Post concerning another horrific incident involving an Arlington County police officer and an animal. I concluded that letter by writing that similar such incidents will occur unless " law enforcement departments, animal control centers, and humane societies join together to deal with the matter of training and equipping officers to deal with animals," for their own protection as well as for the protection of citizens and animals.
A month later, another incident did occur, this time just blocks from where I live in DC. As reported in The Washington Post, a MPD officer responding to a false burglar alarm in broad daylight in Georgetown, shot and killed a Weimaraner dog named Peach in her own yard. The officer said that Peach was attacking her. In response to this incident, I wrote the Mayor, urging the city to follow the lead of other police jurisdictions in implementing programs to train officers on how to handle animals in general, and dogs in particular, for the protection of the officers as well as citizens and their dogs. A month later, I received a somewhat tepid response from a mid-level person at the now-Police Academy thanking me for my suggestions, ensuring me that police were trained on how to handle animals, and inviting me to offer further suggestions in the future. (To the Academy's credit, I learned just recently that they did in fact purchase the police-training film I recommended --- "What Dogs Are Telling Cops" --- and incorporated it into the required annual firearm training.)
In September 2006, a dog named Princess was shot to death in a very crowded Dupont Circle in broad daylight by a Park Police officer. The officer, who said Princess was attacking him, was exonerated, even though not a single person at the scene reported that the dog was acting aggressively.
In July 2007, an MPD officer responding to a dog-bites-dog incident in Adams Morgan was getting ready to shoot the larger dog, Sidney, even though the situation was under control when she arrived. Cooler heads prevailed and Sidney was spared.
On the evening of last December 24th, a two-year-old boxer named Scooby was shot to death by an MPD officer responding to am unrelated complaint on the property of West End's Frances Junior High School in a de facto, off-hours dog park, frequented even by police officers and their dogs. The officer said that Scooby was attacking him.
Finally, on February 22nd, Channel 7 reported an incident involving a police officer and dogs that took place in a Georgetown park earlier that week, fortunately without a serious outcome. The details of the incident are not relevant to the problem here except for several statements made by the police officer and his commanding officer, which characterize precisely the nature of the problem of concern to me. In that incident, the officer, who was legitimately responding to a separate complaint about off-leash dogs in a park, encountered a woman in the park with her elderly dogs off leash. In the ensuing conversation, the woman alleges that the police officer told her that "he could have shot the dogs if he wanted to if he felt threatened." (Later, in a phone conversation with Channel 7, the officer's commanding officer commented that "officers are allowed to discharge their weapons against an animal only if their safety is threatened. . . But . . . that is a very subjective thing to determine.") Also, during the incident, the woman said that the police officer told her that he was once bitten by a Jack Russell terrier, and "so he now carries his gun with him when he goes jogging."
When I heard these last comments, surprised that these were the official lines of the MPD two months after the shooting of Scooby, I inquired about the status of the internal review regarding Scooby's shooting. What I learned was that Scooby's owner was notified (by a voice-mail message) that the shooting of Scooby was justified because his dog was attacking the officer. This, despite the fact that there was absolutely evidence to corroborate an attack, among other things.
It seems evident to me that we DC citizens have reason to conclude that the MPD's policy is that if an officer believes that a dog --- on public property or its own property --- is threatening him, the officer is permitted to kill the dog with his firearm. In other words, an officer is not required to assess (albeit, quickly) whether a dog is truly aggressive, is not required to attempt to defuse the aggression by proven means, and is not required to consider less lethal means of force besides his or her firearm, as would be required by the Department of Justice's Memorandum of Understanding on The Use of Force.
For the years I have been walking my dogs in DC parks, those of us with non-aggressive dogs on public --- or private --- property had only to fear getting a ticket if we had the dog off leash. Now, it seems, the penalty is having our dogs shot by the police. There is something fundamentally wrong with this.* I think a lot of people would support me if I reacted to this by saying: No, a police officer would not be justified in shooting a dog simply if he feels threatened by it. There should be more to it than that. No, the matter is shooting a dog should not be a subjective matter, it can be very much an objective matter with the property training. And No, a police officer should not be justified in taking his gun with him when he goes jogging to defend himself against dogs. (If the latter were the case, shouldn’t the District drop its ban on handguns and let all of us arm ourselves against aggressive dogs? Few, I hope, would argue for that, especially police officers.)
I do not believe that any of the above statements --- or shootings for that matter --- by the police officers were expressions of bravado on their part, but genuine admissions that they do not know what to do in situations regarding seemingly aggressive dogs. Fortunately, the problem of police officers shooting dogs in the District is not a high frequency occurrence, but it is a high risk, high consequence matter, especially to the dog that is shot and its owner. I understand that DC police shoot about 12 - 15 dogs a year, mostly in the course of incidents involving criminal activity. Part of that is due to the comparatively low percentage ownership of dogs in the District (about 23%, according to a recent USA Today article), but also because, fortunately, most DC police officers do not fear dogs and know how to handle them from their own personal experiences. But I would venture to guess that even 12-15 dogs a year by best practice standards is still high, and one unwarranted shooting is one too many. Incidentally, I do not know what the frequency is of dogs biting police officers in the District, but my guess is that it is not very high. However, I admit that the wrong dog can do serious damage to a person, especially a child, and can be a serious distraction during a criminal incident.
After the Scooby incident in December, I wrote a letter to the Mayor, again urging the city to put in place a program for police officers on how to handle dogs, for the officer's own protections, and the protection of citizens and their dogs. Within just a few days, I received a message from Police Chief Cathy Lanier, thanking me for my comments and inviting me to partner with the Police Academy to help improve the MPD's training in this area. As I wrote Chief Lanier, her prompt, positive and forward-looking response was quite a remarkable, especially compared to the tepid response I received three years ago after the shooting of Peach, and especially with everything else she has on her plate. Within minutes of Chief Lanier's message, I received a call from Inspector Brito at the Police Academy, inviting me to visit the Academy to discuss the matter further, which I did and will continue to do if I can be of help. My comments in the below letter published in The Georgetown Current sum up my favorable reaction to the Chief's and Inspector's response:
Two years ago, after the shooting of the Weimaraner Peach on Foxhall Road, I made several recommendations to the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to introduce training for its officers on how to handle dogs. This training was meant primarily for the officers' own protection, which has to be paramount. Immediately after the shooting of Scooby, I resurrected those recommendations without trying to judge what might have happened in Scooby's sad situation. With everything else going on, MPD Chief Cathy Lanier responded immediately with a positive, forward-looking message and invited me to visit the Police Academy to discuss my recommendations with them, which I did. I was impressed that they had indeed instituted my previous recommendations, and was even more impressed with the positive reaction of the Academy's director, Inspector Victor Brito. I am, therefore, confident that the MPD will achieve Chief Lanier's stated goal, which is to have the best Use of Force police department in the country. The training would help officers determine truly aggressive behavior in a dog, provide officers with techniques to defuse aggressive dog situations, and then offer levels of force appropriate to the actual threats.
On the basis of what I have seen so far, my expectations for a successful training program are high, but it is only now in the planning stage. But I shall remain optimistic that a model program will emerge to the point of saying that if the MPD's response to the shooting of Peach three years ago was anything like Chief Lanier's and Inspector Brito's this year, it is highly likely that the shooting of Scooby would not have occurred.
I have to qualify my enthusiasm, however, with two points, both outside of the jurisdiction of the Police Academy. First, from what I know, there is mo MPD General Order on the matter of handling animals in general and dogs in particular. It seems to me that such an order would serve a very useful purpose for everyone and cover more than just the topic of concern here. And, second, surprised that the internal review in Scooby's incident concluded as it did, especially given the highly-trained, independent teams that are supposed to do such investigations, I looked into the matter further. As it turns out, I learned that investigations of the use of firearms where only dogs are involved are not done by the FITs (Force Investigation Team), but by lieutenants in the districts where the dog shootings occurr, even though there may have been people nearby. I would strongly encourage the MPD to change that policy, and refer ALL incidents of discharges of weapons to the FITs. Otherwise, nothing is learned and the effects of the Police Academy's training program will be diluted, if not eliminated. The primary benefit of the FIT reviews should be to improve the quality of the MPD to ensure the public's and the MPD's safety, but if they are not done thoroughly and independently, that benefit may be lost and the wrong message sent, as seems to be the case now.
Looking beyond the above two loose ends, I highly commend Chief Lanier and the Police Academy for their excellent response to the need for an improved training program for officers on how to handle dogs. But I also commend the overwhelming majority of the officers who over the years have dealt with our dogs and kept them out of harm's way because of their own experiences. Finally, I would urge the City Council to support the MPD's efforts by adequately funding and prioritizing them and enacting legislation that supports solving the basic problem.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment.
* There is no question but that keeping a dog on its leash as the law requires (on public property) will reduce the risks of its getting shot. But from an officer's perspective, the question should not be whether a dog is leased or not, or on public or private property, but is the dog a threat and what means should be used to defuse the threat?