Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Verdict in Trial of DC Police Officer who Shot Peach in 2005

Date/time last revised: Thursday, July 31st, 11:15 a.m.

See next posting for earlier information on the trial and background of the case.

The civil (liability) trial of the MPD officer (Arvette Parry) who shot Peach, the graceful Weimaraner dog, in her own yard in Georgetown in 2005, ended this afternoon. The jury found that the officer did not violate Peach's owners' 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable seizures even though Peach showed no aggressive behavior other than barking. The two officers at the scene, whose testimony contradicted each other in several very material parts, testified that Peach was barking and lunging at them from a distance of two feet with Peach's owners nowhere in sight, while Peach's owner testified that Peach was sitting and barking eight feet from the officers and that she was en equal distance away (and gave uncontradicted testimony to prove that). Blogger cannot recall sitting in on any trial where the facts in the case so contradicted the verdict as this case did. (Plaintiff's counsel made a motion to dismiss the verdict on that basis, but that motion was denied, setting still a further ground for a likely appeal.) For instance, Officer William Peterson, the other officer at the scene, testified that Officer Parry told him before the shooting that she was uncomfortable around other peoples' dogs, while Officer Parry herself said that she had no fear of dogs. (Officer Petersen also testified that he himself was afraid of dogs.) Both officers testified that Mrs. Graham, Peach's owner, was nowhere in sight at the time of the shooting, while officer Petersen also testified that he kept shouting, "Get your dog under control" (which Mrs. Graham confirmed), meaning that, if he was to be believed and she not, he was shouting to no one. The list of contradictions between the two officers goes on.

The verdict, of course, does nothing to change the law in DC, nor does it change the public's understanding that has emerged over the last three years regarding what police officers can do when confronted with dogs. Essentially, if one's dog barks at and/or runs up to an officer and the officer says that he or she feared for his or her safety, the officer can "destroy" the dog. The officer does not have to prove any other signs of aggression; the officer does not have to attempt to defuse the aggression by any of the proven successful means; and the officer does not have to use any other non-lethal means to stop the dog despite the Use of Force Continuum officers are required to follow. Although Police Chief Lanier and the Police Academy showed their concerns about unjustified shooting of dogs by their recent support of and introduction of a training program for all officers, today's decision diminishes somewhat if not significantly the impact of that program since officers will not be held accountable for these killings. Fortunately, most police officers know how to handle situations involving animals and know how to apply their best judgment quickly, but that should be little comfort for those whose dogs encounter officers who know neither of these things.

Mayor Fenty, at a recent community meeting, agreed that he would not tolerate the unjustified shootings of dogs by police officers. The goal of those of us in the community concerned about this matter now has to be to change the standard from a very subjective one to an objective one. We have our work cut out for us to do this, but we will succeed, it is hoped before too many other dogs are killed unnecessarily. Four things that need to be done are:

1- The law needs to be changed to state that the Use of Force Continuum is to be applied at all times when lethal force is used, against people or dogs, while still recognizing at all times that an officer's safety is paramount. (Oddly, senior MPD officers with whom Blogger has spoken have stated categorically that the Use of Force Continuum applies to all uses of force, but the DC Attorney General's office argued in court* that it does not. This is a serious contradiction that should be of concern to all citizens of the District.)

2- A General Order needs to be issued on how police officers are to handle situations regarding animals;

3- The investigations of the use of firearms in all cases must be done by the professional and independent Firearms Investigation Teams (FIT). Now, when a dog is shot, even if people are nearby (including holding their dogs), a lieutenant in the district of the officer where the dog was shot does the investigation. (Blogger knows of no such investigation that ever found an unjustified use of force.)

4- The new training program introduced into the Police Academy for recruits must be extended to all MPD officers. (Officer Parry was an 18-year veteran of the force.)

If you live in the District, it is suggested you write to the Mayor, your city council member, and Chief Lanier explaining the importance of dogs to the citizens of the District and pleading with them to implement these measures.

In the meantime, the Grahams are to be commended for their willingness to pursue this matter over three years essentially to hold public officials accountable for their actions. Despite of the verdict in the case of the shooting of their beloved dog Peach, they have done that. All of us in the District, dog owners and others as well, owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

There were three things about this trial that dog owners and all DC citizens concerned about the police department's misuse of force should be hopeful about.

First, although the MPD has no effective mechanism in place for holding officer's accountable for the shootings of dogs, at least the word is now out that the citizens of DC intend to hold them accountable, no matter what the cost to them. This is why the Grahams and their competent attorney, John Lowe, must be commended.

Second, during the trial, numerous discoveries were brought to light about problems in the MPD with respect to its handling of dogs, its use of force generally and other matters of procedure. Community advocates intend to mine this information and use it to improve the process for the benefit of the community. The information will also be communicated to the officials at the Police Academy to improve its recently initiated training program for recruits. The list of the those discoveries will be posted at this blog soon.

Third, it was abundantly clear to his Blogger that the word is getting about in the MPD about the shooting of dogs, and that is a good sign. For instance, Officer Petersen, during his testimony, frequently and mistakenly referred to Peach as Precious. Precious was the dog brutally killed by MPD officer 431 on May 23rd. (See a posting below.) Since Precious was killed in an entirely different district, the word seems to be spreading among the officers, and Blogger will remain optimistic that this is a good sign, knowing that most MPD officers are compassionate toward animals.

* The DC Government's counsel wanted to argue in court that because the unleashed Peach was probably getting ready to leave her own property, that her owner was in violation of the city leash law even though the property which she was about to enter was jointly owners by the Grahams' and their neighbors and the Grahams had an easement over the property. They wanted to argue that the Grahams had the easement, but not Peach. This is what we are up against in the District. The judge, relying on reason and common sense, denied the introduction of that testimony.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Trial of Police Officer Who Shot Peach

On Monday, July 28th, the trial of the DC police officer who shot the beautiful dog Peach in August 2005 got underway in the courtroom of Judge Thomas J. Motley in the D.C. Superior Court. The trial is a civil case against the officer brought by Peach's owners, Barry and Palmer Graham, and is meant solely to establish the liability of the officer in shooting Peach. This posting will eventually be revised to include Blogger's observations about the facts and the law brought out in that trial after it concludes, which it is expected to do in a day or so. In the meantime, for those not familiar with the background of the story that first appeared in the Washington Post in August 2005, please click here. (You may also wish to read about the case of the boxed named Scooby shot on Christmas eve and about the dog named Precious who was shot on May 23rd, both of which are expected to go to a trial someday too. If you study those three cases, you will begin to ask yourself, what is going on here?)

If you own a dog in Washington, however the trial of the officer who shot Peach turns out, you might want to read about this sad case (and the other cases) and take one of the suggested actions that will be indicated later on this blog to help put an end to this serious problem.

If you do not own a dog, you still might wish to read about this case because this case has ramifications way beyond just the shooting of a dog. At a minimum, it concerns the cavalier way that the MPD has treated the use of force. Until this posting is finalized, Blogger wishes to give readers several things to think about.

First, every dog owner in Washington, and perhaps many, many more people beyond that, owe a sincere gesture of gratitude to Barry and Palmer Graham for having the courage to bring this civil case against the MPD and the officer who shot Peach. It is Blogger's conclusion that the only reason they brought it was to prevent such unjustified killings of our pets in the future. For too long, the MPD has been shooting our dogs (according to Chief Lanier, about 15 dogs are killed by police each year) without any fear that they would be held accountable. And in fact, of all the cases Blogger has read about, not a single officer was ever even reprimanded or brought to be held accountable for such shootings even though every officer with whom Blogger has spoken (and there have been many) has expressed disgust at the actions of their fellow officers. Because of what the Graham's are doing, however the case turns out for them, many dogs will be spared fates similar to Peach's in the future.

Second, to the credit of Chief Lanier, the MPD has recognized their shortcomings in not providing their officers with any training on how to handle dogs. Thanks to the compassionate and professional response of officers such as Inspector Victor Brito at the Police Academy, the MPD now requires all of its recruits to undergo one day of intensive training at the Academy on handling dogs. In particular, the recruits will learn how to overcome their fear of dogs, how to recognize aggressive behavior in dogs, how to defuse an aggressive dog, and how to apply the Use of Force continuum against an aggressive dog if all else fails. After the new program has been successfully introduced, it will be extended to all officers through the semi-annual range training, roll-call training and distance learning.

Third, despite the expected success of the new program, the facts brought out at the present trial so far have given this Blogger much cause for concern. For instance, the MPD, as represented by the DC Office of Attorney General, believes that the Use of Force Continuum does not apply to the shootings of dogs, even if someone was holding the dog when it was shot (see the story on Precious, elsewhere on this blog). As an extension of that, the MPD believes that it has the right to shoot an unleashed dog, even on the owner's property, if the officer believes it was about the be bitten without regard to how serious the bite might be or without regard to how real that threat was. If you own a dog in the District, these few discoveries alone should give you great cause for concern not only about your dog, but about your own safety also. What should also give you pause is that the DC Attorney's office really wants to win this case. Not only does the new attorney general personally decide which cases will go to trial or not, but he has assigned seven (yes, 7) attorneys to this case. This last fact alone should send up a red flag to not only all dog owners but to all taxpayers.

Blogger truly believes that the overwhelming majority of DC police officers know from their own experiences how to handle dogs and how to utilize the Use of Force Continuum against both dogs and people. However, a majority is not enough to protect your dog. One hundred percent of the police force must learn these things. Until they do, no dog on the street or in its own yard, leased or unleashed, is safe. Unfortunately, not everyone will heed these words and many dogs will die needlessly over the next years until we citizens can fix this problem, hopefully in partnership with the MPD. As for the Use of Force in general, DC was on the Department of Justice's Watch list for excessive use of force by its officers until just recently. Many of us who approach that subject through the eyes of our dogs are still concerned, not only for our own safety or the lives of our dogs, but for others, including the MPD officers themselves.

At a recent community meeting with Mayor Fenty, Blogger raised the issue of the police shooting dogs, and Mayor Fenty agreed wholeheartedly that he will not tolerate unjustified shootings of dogs. City council member such as Mary Cheh, Jack Evans, and Phil Mendelson also have concern for what the city's department is doing to our animals. Blogger also knows that Chief Lanier shares many of these concerns. However, the police force is more than 4000 officers, and each one of them has to be trained in not only how to handle dogs, but what dogs mean to the lives of the people of the District of Columbia. To be sure, we citizens will not be able to stop the malicious actions of some officers, such as the one of shot Precious on May 23rd of this year, but we can go a long way to making those officer accountable for their actions.

Please return to this blog posting soon for some of Blogger's observations on the trial of the officer who shot Peach and what you can do to help stop the MPD from shooting our dogs simply for acting like dogs.

Thank you for reading this blog.