Protecting the Furry Members of the Family
by John Browning    Tue, Apr 9, 2013, 12:35 pm

          The Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that owners of companion animals cannot recover non-economic damages from those who killed their pets.  Whether it’s a motorist who hit your child’s adored puppy, a veterinarian who made a careless error, or an irresponsible neighbor whose pit bulls got loose and savaged your beloved family pet, accountability—in the eyes of the highest court in the state—is limited to whatever the “market value” of the dog or cat happened to be.  For nearly all of us, what we paid to buy or adopt a dog or cat pales by comparison to the emotional value that a companion animal holds for us.  Many of us (including myself) regard our dogs or cats as members of the family, and would like the law to reflect that intrinsic bond.


          In certain limited circumstances, some states already have recognized this bond—at least when it comes to the wrongful actions of law enforcement that result in the death of a family pet.  In Colorado, a bipartisan bill known as the “Don’t Shoot My Dog” law has been unanimously approved by the senate judiciary committee and is being considered by the full Colorado Senate.  The measure will require that sheriff’s departments and police departments develop training programs to prepare law enforcement officers for dealing with dogs.  Among other things, the training would stress recognizing dog behavior and employing non-lethal methods to control dogs, according to the bill’s co-authors, Sen. Lucia Guzman (D-Denver) and Sen. David Balmer (R-Centennial).


          The legislation was inspired by a growing number of incidents in Colorado and nationwide in which police officers have shot and killed family pets under highly questionable circumstances.  The Colorado senators heard testimony from people like Brittany Moore of Erie, Colorado, who called police on May 10, 2011 because of threatening phone calls she was receiving.  The police officer who arrived initially went to the wrong house; when he walked toward Moore’s residence, her “friendly” dogs Ava and Ivy approached the officer.  He backed up, drawing his gun.  Ms. Moore called to the dogs, causing them to stop.  As Ava turned to go back to her, a rawhide toy still clenched in her mouth, a shot rang out; the officer shot the dog in the back, severing her spinal cord.  He later reported that he “had to” shoot the dog because it was “threatening” him.  Ms. Moore vehemently contradicts the officer’s account, saying “Ava never posed a threat at any time that night.  The only threat that night was an officer discharging his weapon less than five feet away from me in a neighborhood with kids playing outside.”


          In 2011, a federal jury awarded “$333,000 to a family after Chicago police officers shot and killed their black Labrador during a February 2009 search of their home.  The police had a warrant to search two apartment units as part of a drug investigation, including the apartment where brothers Darren and Thomas Russell lived.  18 year-old Thomas raised his hands in the air as the officers entered, and asked for permission to lock up his 9 year-old black Lab, Lady.  The police refused, and when Lady came around the corner with her tail wagging, the police shot and killed her.  According to Thomas Russell, Lady was his “best friend” who never left his side, only sleeping when he slept.  No drugs were found, and the Russells brought a civil rights lawsuit alleging excessive force and infliction of emotional harm.  The damages verdict included a punitive damages award against the police officer who killed Lady.


          In Maryland in 2012, a jury awarded Roger and Sandi Jenkins $620,000 in damages after sherifff’s deputies shot and killed their chocolate Labrador Brandi.  On January 9, 2010, deputies Timothy Brooks and Nathan Rector arrived at the Jenkins’ home in Taneytown, looking for their son Jerrett, who was wanted on a civil warrant.  Roger Jenkins told deputies they could come in and look for his son after he put his dogs away.  The deputies allegedly ignored this (their defense attorney would later claim that Mr. Jenkins could have done more to secure the dogs), and Deputy Brooks claimed that he made a “split-second decision” to shoot Brandi when she loped toward him.  Dashcam video showed the friendly dog coming out to greet the officers.  The jury found the officers’ actions to be grossly negligent and a violation of Mr. & Mrs. Jenkins’ civil rights.


          The October 2011 shooting of a dog by St. Petersburg, Florida police led to a civil lawsuit as well, but more importantly, has already spurred a change in police policy on dealing with loose dogs.  After police killed his 12 year-old, arthritic golden retriever Boomer after the dog escaped his yard, Florida attorney Roy Glass didn’t want money (the lawsuit proceeds, if any, will go to charity), he wanted to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.  Now, St. Petersburg police are to use non-lethal force, such as the catchpoles used by animal control officers.


          Earlier this year, Des Moines, Washington police paid a $51,000 settlement stemming from the killing of a dog in November 2010.  Rosie, a Newfoundland belonging to Charles and Deirdre Wright, got out of her yard while the Wrights were not home.  A neighbor reported the barking dog to police, who chased Rosie for blocks and even attempted to Taser the dog before shooting her 4 times with a high-powered rifle.  Even more egregious were the officers’ comments about shooting the dog (the microphone recordings were obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request), and the fact that local police initially denied knowing what happened to Rosie—until Mr. Wright confronted them with a Taser dart he found on his front lawn.  According to Adam Karp, the Wrights’ attorney, the settlement is believed to be the largest of its kind in Washington state history.


          I’m not saying that law enforcement officers don’t have the right to protect themselves when a dog constitutes a valid threat—like, for example, a drug dealer or gang member’s trained pit bull.  But I consider my dogs members of my family, and if an officer like Timothy Brooks shot at a four-legged member of my family, the two-legged ones are going to shoot back.

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