war on dogs?

In a comment to my earlier post about the shooting of a dog by Philadelphia police, NickL pointed out that "it seems that it is now standard practice for police to shoot the family dog when turning up to arrest someone," and cited two very disturbing posts by Radley Balko. The first one discusses two incidents -- one in which the officers charged into a private backyard in "hot pursuit" of a suspect who lived elsewhere, then shot the dogs who lived there for defending the yard (a primary reason people keep dogs), and another incident in which (quoting this report) a SWAT team in Maricopa County, Arizona forced a 10 month old pit bull puppy to be burned alive, Waco style:

[I]n the ultimate display of cruelty, a SWAT team member drove a dog trying to flee the home back into the inferno, where it met an agonizing death.

Deputies then reportedly laughed as the dog's owners came unglued as it perished in the blaze.

"I was crying hysterically," Andrea Barker, one of the dog's owners, tells me. "I was so upset. They [deputies] were laughing at me."

Balko notes that aside from the torching of the building and the torturing of the dog, all the police had to show for their efforts was the arrest of one suspect -- for traffic violations. My reaction is to find myself hoping that somehow this is all made up by Balko or someone else. I don't want to think that I live in a country where police act like this. I'm trying not to be emotional, and I realize that this was just a dog. And I'm quite aware of the irony that I should be more sympathetic with the people and I therefore agree with the spirit of Balko's remarks about that distinction:
On a slightly lighter note, I relayed my "they always shoot the dog" observation to a colleague here at Cato. He told me he's discoverd something as he's given interviews and speeches over the years about the Waco massacre.

Apparently, people who think that perhaps the government acted properly in invading and burning down a house of largely innocent (but admidetly weird) people get really pissed off when they learn that the federal government also slaughtered the Brand Davidian dogs. Women and children? Meh. Weirdo cultists probably deserved it. But...

"They killed the dogs? Aw, man. That's bullshit."

It's like, sure, they have a right to burn up gun-toting religious crackpots, but the dogs? That goes too far!

No, I do not think that way, although to be fair, while dogs are not human (and legally they are property) they are nonetheless innocent in a way that humans are not, because they have no human awareness of criminal intent.

However, it also occurs to me that men who think it's funny to watch a puppy burn to death might not be the right candidates for law enforcement work, and I hope that their boss (celebrity sheriff Joe Arpaio) will or has fired them, assuming the allegations turn out to be true. Call me a bleeding heart liberal for saying it, but I would not want to be taken prisoner by people who entertain themselves by burning puppies to death.

The other Balko post cites two more incidents -- one in which the police entered the wrong house in the quest to track down a burglar alarm signal and shot a Rottweiller simply for behaving as a watch dog. And in the second incident, police shot a pit bull for defending another yard they entered in "hot pursuit," then beat the owner for coming to the aid of his dog:

Blu was in the couple's fenced yard on Sixth Street when the officers opened the gate to pursue a suspect, then shot the dog 11 times with pistols and a shotgun. When Parr ran up and asked the officers, "Why'd you shoot my dog?" police "pointed their guns at him, kicked and punched him and threw him to the ground," the suit said.

Police arrested Parr on suspicion of obstructing police officers, but no charges were filed.

It's not funny, as it could happen to me, my dog, or anyone's dog.

I say this not simply to promote my libertarian crank theories, but because I was once mistaken by the police in hot pursuit of SLA bankrobbers as a member of the SLA -- in my own backyard. Oddly enough, I recalled the story about three years ago when contemplating another dog shooting incident:

If some cops came into my yard and shot my dog, I would want to get even any way I could. Police tend not to apologize in these situations, because they feel they were just "doing their job."

Well, what about the dog? Wasn't he just doing his job too?

Mistakes like this can be intolerable, and can create lifelong rage. It's been more than 30 years since it happened, but I've never forgiven the cops who held guns (two pistols and a shotgun) to my head, made me lie on the ground and called me names, simply because they thought I was with the Symbionese Liberation Army, which had robbed a nearby bank. (I wasn't with the SLA; I was in my own backyard and had no idea a bank had been robbed.)

At least I was alive! People have been killed because of such mistakes.

There's no getting around the fact that it just isn't nice to shoot someone's dog, especially when there was no criminal culpability involving the dog's owner.

One of the most horrendous examples involved a law abiding man who left his wallet on a gas pump after he'd filled up. This set in motion a series of "bureaucratic errors" leading to a felony stop, and the shooting of his apparently friendly dog who jumped out of the car because the police would not allow the "suspects" to close it:

In the video, released by the THP, officers are heard ordering the family, one by one, to get out of their car with their hands up. James Smoak and his wife, Pamela, and 17-year-old son Brandon are ordered onto their knees and handcuffed.

"What did I do?" James Smoak asks the officers.

"Sir, inside information is that you was involved in some type of robbery in Davidson County," the unidentified officer says.

Smoak and his wife protest incredulously, telling the officers that they are from South Carolina and that their mother and father-in-law are traveling in another car alongside them.

The Smoaks told CNN that as they knelt, handcuffed, they pleaded with officers to close the doors of their car so their two dogs would not escape, but the officers did not heed them.

Pamela Smoak is seen on the tape looking up at an officer, telling him slowly, "That dog is not mean. He won't hurt you."

Her husband says, "I got a dog in the car. I don't want him to jump out."

The tape then shows the Smoak's medium-size brown dog romping on the shoulder of the Interstate, its tail wagging. As the family yells, the dog, named Patton, first heads away from the road, then quickly circles back toward the family.

An officer in a blue uniform aims his shotgun at the dog and fires at its head, killing it immediately.

For several moments, all that is audible are shrieks as the family reacts to the shooting. James Smoak even stands up, but officers pull him back down.

"Y'all shot my dog! Y'all shot my dog!" James Smoak cries. "Oh my God! God Almighty!"

"You shot my dog!" screams his wife, distraught and still handcuffed. "Why'd you kill our dog?"

"Jesus, tell me, why did y'all shoot my dog?" James Smoak says.

The officers bring him to the patrol car, and the family calms down, but still they ask the officers for an explanation. One of them says Patton was "going after" the officer.

"No he wasn't, man," James Smoak says. "Y'all didn't have to kill the dog like that."

Brandon told CNN Patton, was playful and gentle -- "like Scooby-Doo" -- and may have simply gone after the beam of the flashlight as he often did at home, when Brandon and the dog would play.

The Tenneseean has more including an analysis of video discrepancies between what the police initially reported and what happened. More here.

NickL's comment to my earlier post concluded ominously:

I'm sure there's plenty more as well. Maybe that's what the police get taught during training nowadays?
I certainly hope not.

But I notice that police seem to be given wide latitude in shooting dogs -- especially if the dogs are "pit bulls."

A police account of another shooting is titled Vicious Pitbull Attacks Officer:

Los Angeles: A vicious Pitbull was shot while officers were searching for a burglar.

On May 28, 2007, at about 12:30 p.m., Southwest Bike Officers Elbin Quintanilla and his partner responded to assist other officers who were in foot pursuit of a burglary suspect.

While searching for the burglary suspect, an LAPD Air Unit directed Officer Quintanilla and his partner to a backyard in the 3000 block of Norton Street. The officers were confronted by a vicious Pitbull who charged Quintanilla's partner and was inches away from biting his leg. Officer Quintanilla fired one round and struck the dog in the shoulder. The owner of the Pitbull came out of the house and restrained the dog.

A perimeter was set and the K-9 Unit was called out. The burglary suspect was located near the area and was taken into custody without incident.

Again, it appears that at most this dog was defending his backyard. How does the defense of a yard morph into "vicious"? By the assertion that the dog was "inches away from biting his leg"? (The dog bit no one.) Or by the additional words "pit bull"? Well, what was it? A "vicious pit bull"? Or a dog defending his own yard?

Do dogs have the right to defend yards without being labeled vicious? Or do only pit bulls forfeit this right?

I found the following YouTube video in which the police gave one of these usual accounts, but if you watch it, you'll see that the neighbors dispute it rather vehemently, saying that the police shot a friendly puppy who came to them when it was called.

This whole area strikes me as a perfect scenario for a law school question. Under what circumstances do the police have a right to shoot dogs? Obviously, they'll always say that the dogs were attacking, but if the police have invaded private property without a warrant, and the owner of the dogs is given no notice that they were there, how is the dog supposed to know that they were "good guys" and not the bad guys it is their job to protect against? Nothing is more dangerous than police in hot pursuit or police acting under a mistake, as unlike criminals, they're acting under legal authority, and if you don't know they are there, anything might happen.

What about the right of the dog owner to defend his dog? Legally, it has to be kept in mind that dogs are property, and there is no right to use lethal force in defense of property, even if that property is about to be destroyed or irreparably injured. Thus, if an unlawful trespasser enters my backyard and I see him pointing a gun at my dog's head, I am not allowed to shoot him -- even if that would save Coco's life. That's because Coco is a dog, and the trespasser is a human. Frankly, I agree with this distinction, and no matter how awful it would be to see Coco get shot, that does not entitle me to commit murder to prevent it.

As a practical matter, though, I am allowed to use reasonable force to defend my property, and I suppose I could run out into the yard, point a gun at the guy, and scream "DROP THE GUN!" What I could not do would be to shoot him. However, if instead of dropping the gun, he turned from Coco and pointed it at me, then I could shoot in self defense.

But what if the trespasser about to shoot my dog was a cop? Same rule?

Don't ask me.

I'm not in law school and I don't have to answer law school questions.

My worry, though, is that the burgeoning dog control movement may be fueled in part by fearful police, who are after all human beings and who read the same scare stories as everyone else. Moreover, they are routinely (and more and more frequently) being ordered to utilize military methods and tactics while conducting raids on residences without notice to the occupants, many of whom have dogs which are dangerous to dangerous invaders.

I worry that the war on drugs is fueling a war on dogs.

MORE: Readers who might think this is all about pit bulls should think again. According to the Responsible Dog Owners of the Western States, a total of 75 different breeds of dogs (plus various mixes) are now being banned or restricted from ownership in the United States:

BSL is based upon the urban myth of the "pit bull", which is not a recognized breed of dog. Under the guise of banning "pit bulls" any breed may be thus identified. There are at least seventy-five actual breeds, plus any mixed breed now either banned from ownership, or restricted in ownership in the United States. That is about 1/5 of all recognized breeds.
I won't list them all, but the full list of breeds appears here.

I guess the idea that a man's home is his castle has become an anachronism.

UPDATE: Longtime commenter Chocolatier opines that pit bulls can be spotted by a "know it when you see it" test. The problem is that there's no way to define it legal terms.

If you doubt me, take the famous "FIND THE PIT BULL" test.

I had trouble with it.

BTW, I've owned these dogs since the mid 1970s (when they weren't controversial), and when she was a girl my mom was photographed with "Pete" -- the famous Our Gang dog -- at the Atlantic City Steel Pier.

Nowadays, I find myself judged by the breed of my dog -- a judgment which results not from anything my dog has done, but what other people's dogs have done. Unfair by any standard. And as Radley Balko made clear, it's at least as unfair as gun control:

...when pit bulls are criminalized, only criminals will own pit bulls.
And of course, if every "pit bull" was rounded up and killed, does anyone think the dog killers would stop there?

MORE: Via Glenn Reynolds, I see that there's apparently a rule that if you take a video of the police shooting a dog, you can be charged with "wiretapping."

No, really.

(Which means that even if you're allowed to use reasonable force to protect your dog, you may not use a camera!)

UPDATE: Link to Nick Schweitzer's fine post fixed, with thanks to Nick for pointing it out.

posted by Eric on 06.12.07 at 10:37 AM


Yes, the pit bull is not a recognized dog breed, but pit bulls are not just 'an urban myth' either. The term "urban myth" refers to something that doesn't actually exist. Pit bulls are not like giant albino alligators in the sewers of NYC, or unicorns or griffins. Pit bulls do exist, and they have certain things in common. They are all terriers. They have a size and weight range and a shape that makes passers-by say: "Thats a pit bull."

Chocolatier   ·  June 12, 2007 11:38 AM

I guess I would go to jail then.....'cause if you point a gun at my dogs, I will shoot you without hesitation cop or no cop. Let the jury sort it out.

Part of the reason that this continues to happens is that the court's ALWAYS give the cops immunity. If you have no criminal or civil recourse then about the only thing you can do is meet gunfire with gunfire. If you are law-abiding citizen minding your own business and the cops come charging into and starting shooting you should have the right to defend yourself. Maybe that is going to be the only way to get them to think twice about doing it if their life is on the line.

Call me crazy and some will, but the militarization of the police force has to stop.

J   ·  June 12, 2007 11:45 AM

Shoot my dog or shoot another member of my family, it makes no difference, I am going to hunt you down and kill you even if they give me the needle for it.

GeorgeH   ·  June 12, 2007 1:26 PM

J and George. If I'm on your jury, I will set you free.

The careless and flagrant use of force by police has gotten out of control. Obviously the best way to fix this is politically, but in individual circumstances, the direct route will occasionally be necessary.

tim maguire   ·  June 12, 2007 2:12 PM

I don't think I have what it takes to do as the above posters said they would do. However, along with monetary damages, I would also sue for the life of either a police dog or the pet of the killer officer.

triticale   ·  June 12, 2007 2:56 PM

I won't share any anecdotes, because you guys wouldn't believe them, or would find a way shift the blame to me, but as an ex-paper boy and professional cyclist, I have a burned-in hatred for dogs, and a deeply reinforced reactive disgust at their owners, who, in my experience, at least at some repressed level, revel in their walking weapons' capacity for random violence, and thrill at its display.

The characteristic of dogs described as "innocence" above looks to me like "dangerous irrationality," and I regard a person walking a dog the way I regard someone blindly firing a gun into the street, or, at best, if it's leashed, like someone parading in a Nazi uniform.

This isn't to argue--there's no argument from either side of this; all there can be is an exchange of denunciations--or even to apply it to any of you dog-lovers personally. Exceptions to my snap judgement aren't rare, but the judgement remains as necessary for self-preservation. (You don't believe this. I understand.)

I only want to point out that I'm viscerally unsympathetic to the victims in these stories to the greatest degree possible, even more so than most people were to the Davidians.

I still think Eric is right.

Best Not   ·  June 12, 2007 2:58 PM

So.... J would immediately shoot at the police, and most likely get gunned down, himself in the process.

GeorgeH admits that he would commit 1st degree murder and is willing to risk the death penalty to commit it, but, oh, wait, Tim Maguire would summarily exonerate George for the admitted premeditated murder just to send a message.

This is a blog in which the blogger is much more reasonable (not to mention saner) than many of his commenters.

Panday   ·  June 12, 2007 6:43 PM
"Power without responsibility corrupts" John Campbell

The police in this country are corrupt because they are not held responsible for their actions. There are no real consequences for what they do. What began as a way to prevent frivolous or fraudulent legal action has become a way for cops to avoid having to pay for their misdeeds. It is time this stopped. It is time the police become liable to arrest and prosecution. And their fellows liable to arrest and prosecution for obstruction of justice when they refuse to cooperate with an investigation.

I say it is far better to do without a police department than with a criminal police department. And that if we are to reform the police we first need to destroy the cult of police exceptionalism so rampant today. Let's start by punishing cops for being rude bigots. Teach courtesy and empower civilians to take legal action when a cop is rude.

And a bit of advice for the civilians out there, stop acting like a damn victim. Stand up for yourself and act like somebody worthy of respect. Be courteous when possible, and firm when hat is required. And when a cop acts like a frat boy on steroids, express your disappointment courteously, yet firmly.

It's time we taught our police courtesy and respect for the civilian population, and learned how to stand up for ourselves.

Alan Kellogg   ·  June 12, 2007 8:58 PM

I can't find the link, but there is a blog that visited a place where police train for "dynamic entrances" (e.g. busting the door down on a drug raid.) The police use paint guns and inside the house are silhouettes of people - some with guns and some without. There is also a silhouette of a dog.

In reviewing the building, the author noted that the bad guys had a lot of paint marks, the innocent people had very few, but the dog was totally covered with shot marks. One trainee he interviewed said "We always shoot the dog."

I think his closing remark was something he recalled from his basketball coach; "You perform the way you practice."

_Jon   ·  June 13, 2007 8:55 AM

Just an FYI that you actually linked to the RSS Comment Feed for the post that lists out the different breeds subject to bans. The link to the actual post is here:


Nick   ·  June 13, 2007 2:02 PM

Panday: You bet I would. Some messages are worth sending. Your reaction to J tells me exactly how much weight to give your concerns. I hope I never live in a world you define as sane.

tim maguire   ·  June 13, 2007 3:08 PM


You're a wingnut who would let an admitted first-degree murderer off. What color is the sky on your planet, anyway?

Go back to your unabomber shack and write in your hate-the-government diary.

Panday   ·  June 13, 2007 7:27 PM

I have to say I completely understand J., GeorgeH and Tim. Dogs ARE personal property, albeit with more emotion regarding the dog than, say, a sofa.

Cops in this country have become arrogant, belligerent, and power-mad. I guess "corrupt" is the polite way to say it. In some cases I've read and heard, their treatment of law-abiding citizens is nothing short of flat-out harassment. As Alan noted, policemen are never, ever expected to pay the price for their actions and they never do.

A citizen police force works for me. While there are good-hearted, well-meaning cops out there, for the most part they've been relegated to a uniformed cleanup crew since they can't be everywhere at once (nor do I want them to be). I and most of the "regular people" I know are polite and respectful of police officers...it would be nice if they treated us the same way.

By the way, I've heard the story about the cops forcing the puppy to burn to death in several other places, all legit news sources (TV stations, newspapers, etc.). I'm pretty sure it's a true story, horrible as it is.

Miss O'Hara   ·  June 13, 2007 8:33 PM

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