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.

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