John Whitehead's Commentary
Programmed to Kill: The Growing Epidemic of Cops Shooting Dogs
“In too much of policing today, officer safety has become the highest priority. It trumps the rights and safety of suspects. It trumps the rights and safety of bystanders. It’s so important, in fact, that an officer’s subjective fear of a minor wound from a dog bite is enough to justify using potentially lethal force, in this case at the expense of a 4-year-old girl. And this isn’t the first time. In January, an Iowa cop shot and killed a woman by mistake while trying to kill her dog. Other cops have shot other kids, other bystanders, their partners, their supervisors and even themselves while firing their guns at a dog. That mind-set is then, of course, all the more problematic when it comes to using force against people.”—Journalist Radley Balko
Almost two years after the firestorm that took place in Ferguson, Missouri, when a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager and militarized police descended in a brutal show of force to quell local protests, not much has really changed for the better.
Unarmed Americans are still getting shot by police with alarming regularity.
SWAT teams are still bursting through doors, terrorizing families and leaving lives and property shattered. In one incident, a Kansas SWAT team erroneously raided the home of two former CIA analysts after police observed family members shopping at a gardening store and found loose-leaf tea (mistaken for marijuana) in the family’s trash can.
And the military industrial complex is still making a killing (literally and figuratively) at taxpayer expense from the transformation of small-town police forces—“kitted out with Marine-issue camouflage and military-grade body armor, toting short-barreled assault rifles, and rolling around in armored vehicles”—into extensions of the military.
What has changed is the extent to which Americans—easily distracted by all of the political mumbo jumbo being bantered around—seem to have stopped paying attention or being outraged about revelations of government corruption, wrongdoing and outright abuse.
Part of this ignorance can be attributed to the failure of the mainstream media to report on what’s really taking place in the American police state. As The Huffington Post reports, “The media has turned its sights to the heated presidential election, burning through the oxygen that had given life to stories about police brutality and reform.”
Another part of this apathy can be chalked up to a widespread desensitization to police violence, thanks to the growing availability and accessibility of surveillance and camera footage. As Salon points out, “the increased visibility of trauma and death at the hands of cops” has resulted in “the deadening of our collective senses.”
And yet another part of this indifference seemingly stems from the fact that we just don’t value human life as much as we should. How many Americans seem unconcerned about the carnage inflicted on civilians worldwide as a result of the nation’s bloody, endless wars abroad? As The Washington Post makes clear, the end result of ignoring these civilian casualties and burying memories of war’s destruction is more wars, more blowback, and more innocent blood on our hands.
If there’s one area where Americans do seem to still get outraged, it’s in relation to their pets, who occupy a sizeable place in their hearts, homes and wallets.
According to newspaper editors, “stories about animal abuse often generate more responses from upset readers than articles about violence directed toward humans.” Reports from police agencies support the claim that “shooting a dog brings more heat down on an agency than an officer-involved shooting of a human.”
Prepare to be outraged.
A dog is shot by a police officer “every 98 minutes.”
The Department of Justice estimates that at least 25 dogs are killed by police every day.
The Puppycide Database Project estimates the number of dogs being killed by police to be closer to 500 dogs a day (which translates to 182,000 dogs a year).
Because not all police departments keep track of canine shootings, these numbers vary widely. However, whatever the final body count, what we’re dealing with is an epidemic of vast proportions.
Incredibly, in 1 out of 5 cases involving police shooting a family pet, a child was either in the police line of fire or in the immediate area of a shooting.
The so-called “dangerous” breeds of dogs aren’t the only ones that are being killed in encounters with police either.
Journalist Radley Balko has documented countless “dog shootings in which a police officer said he felt ‘threatened’ and had no choice but to use lethal force, including the killing of a Dalmatian (more than once), a yellow Lab , a springer spaniel, a chocolate Lab, a boxer, an Australian cattle dog, a Wheaten terrier, an Akita… a Jack Russell terrier… a 12-pound miniature dachshund… [and] a five-pound chihuahua.”
Essentially, police can shoot your dog for any reason or no reason at all.
What’s more, the general consensus from the courts thus far has been to absolve police from charges of wrongdoing. Conversely, while police routinely receive little blowback for shooting family pets, shooting a police dog can land you in just as much trouble as if you shoot a human being: for instance, a teenager who shot and killed a police dog received a 23-year prison sentence.
Not to worry. I’m just getting warmed up.
Spike, a 70-pound pit bull, was shot by NYPD police when they encountered him in the hallway of an apartment building in the Bronx. Surveillance footage shows the dog, tail wagging, right before an officer shot him in the head at pointblank range.
Arzy, a 14-month-old Newfoundland, Labrador and golden retriever mix, was shot between the eyes by a Louisiana police officer. The dog had been secured on a four-foot leash at the time he was shot. An independent witness testified that the dog never gave the officer any provocation to shoot him.
Seven, a St. Bernard, was shot repeatedly by Connecticut police in the presence of the dog’s 12-year-old owner. Police, investigating an erroneous tip, had entered the property—without a warrant—where the dog and her owner had been playing in the backyard, causing the dog to give chase.
Dutchess, a 2-year-old rescue dog, was shot three times in the head by Florida police as she ran out her front door. The officer had been approaching the house to inform the residents that their car door was open when the dog bounded out to greet him.
Yanna, a 10-year-old boxer, was shot three times by Georgia police after they mistakenly entered the wrong home and opened fire, killing the dog, shooting the homeowner in the leg and wounding an investigating officer.
Payton, a 7-year-old black Labrador retriever, and 4-year-old Chase, also a black Lab, were shot and killed after a SWAT team mistakenly raided the mayor’s home while searching for drugs. Police shot Payton four times. Chase was shot twice, once from behind as he ran away. “My government blew through my doors and killed my dogs. They thought we were drug dealers, and we were treated as such. I don't think they really ever considered that we weren’t,” recalls Mayor Cheye Calvo, who described being handcuffed and interrogated for hours—wearing only underwear and socks—surrounded by the dogs’ carcasses and pools of the dogs’ blood.
In another instance, a Missouri SWAT team raided a family home, killing a 4-year-old pit bull Kiya. Believe it or not, this time the SWAT raid wasn’t in pursuit of drugs, mistaken or otherwise, but was intended “to check if [the] home had electricity and natural gas service.”
Mind you, these are not isolated instances.
There are websites, community action organizations and Facebook groups that do nothing but publicize dog shootings by police, and there are a lot of them. One filmmaker, Andrea B. Scott, has even put together a documentary to raise awareness about the epidemic.
Clearly, our four-legged friends are suffering at the hands of a police state in which the police have all the rights and the citizenry (and their “civilian” dogs) have little to none.
As always, we have to dig down deep to understand why is this happening.
Are family dogs really such a menace to police? Are law enforcement agents really so fearful for their safety—and so badly trained—that they have no recourse when they encounter a dog than to shoot? Finally, are police shootings of dogs really any different than police shootings of unarmed citizens?
First off, dogs are no greater menace to police than they are to anyone else. After all, as the Washington Post points out, while “postal workers regularly encounter both vicious and gregarious dogs on their daily rounds… letter carriers don’t kill dogs, even though they are bitten by the thousands every year. Instead, the Postal Service offers its employees training on how to avoid bites.”
Second, these dog shootings epitomize a larger, societal problem with law enforcement agencies prioritizing an “officer safety” mindset that encourages police to shoot first and ask questions later. We’d have a lot fewer police shootings (of dogs and unarmed citizens) if police weren’t quite so preoccupied with “officer safety” at the expense of all else.
As commentator William Norman Grigg pointed out, “A peace officer is paid to assume certain risks, including those necessary to de-escalate a confrontation... A ‘veteran’ deputy with the mindset of a peace officer would have taken more than a shaved fraction of a split-second to open fire on a small male individual readily identifiable as a junior high school student, who was carrying an object that is easily recognizable as a toy—at least to people who don’t see themselves as an army of occupation, and view the public as an undifferentiated mass of menace.”
Third, these dog killings are, as Balko recognizes, “a side effect of the new SWAT, paramilitary focus in many police departments, which has supplanted the idea of being an ‘officer of the peace.’” Thus, whether you’re talking about police shooting dogs or citizens, the mindset is the same: a rush to violence, abuse of power, fear for officer safety, poor training in how to de-escalate a situation, and general carelessness.
That paramilitary focus has resulted in a government mindset that allows SWAT teams and other government agents to invade your home, break down your doors, kill your dog (the dog always gets shot first), wound or kill you, damage your furnishings and terrorize your family.
This is the same mindset that sees nothing wrong with American citizens being subjected to roadside strip searches, forcible blood draws, invasive surveillance, questionable exposure to radiation and secret government experiments, and other morally reprehensible tactics.
Unfortunately, this is a mindset that is flourishing within the corporate-controlled, military-driven American police state.
So what’s to be done about all of this?
In terms of our four-legged friends, many states are adopting laws to make canine training mandatory for police officers. As dog behavior counselor Brian Kilcommons noted, officers’ inclination to “take command and take control” can cause them to antagonize dogs unnecessarily. Officers “need to realize they’re there to neutralize, not control… If they have enough money to militarize the police with Humvees, they have enough money to train them not to kill family members. And pets are considered family.”
Frankly, police should also be made to undergo classes annually on how to peacefully resolve and de-escalate situations with the citizenry. While they’re at it, they should be forced to de-militarize. No one outside the battlefield—and barring a foreign invasion, the U.S. should never be considered a domestic battlefield—should be equipped with the kinds of weapons and gear being worn and used by local police forces today. If the politicians are serious about instituting far-reaching gun control measures, let them start by taking the guns and SWAT teams away from the countless civilian agencies that have nothing to do with military defense that are packing lethal heat.
Finally, there will be no end to the bloodshed—of unarmed Americans or their family pets—until police stop viewing themselves as superior to those whom they are supposed to serve and start acting like the peace officers they’re supposed to be. Ultimately, this comes down to better—and constant—training in nonviolent tactics, serious consequences for those who engage in excessive force, and a seismic shift in how the law enforcement agencies and the courts deal with those who transgress.
As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, when you’re trained to kill anything that poses the slightest threat (imagined or real), when you’ve been instructed to view yourself as a soldier and those you’re supposed to serve as enemy combatants on a battlefield, when you can kill and there are no legal consequences for your actions, and when you are deemed immune from lawsuits holding you accountable for the use of excessive force, then it won’t matter what gets in your way. Whether it’s a family pet, a child with a toy gun, or an old man with a cane—you’re going to shoot to kill.