A rash of animal shootings by police officers nationwide has law-enforcement agencies running for cover amid growing public outrage that could force state legislatures to require greater accountability from men and women in uniform.
Police in Utah shot a family’s dog while searching for a lost boy, prompting hundreds of pet owners to protest June 28 in front of the Salt Lake City Police Department headquarters. They carried signs demanding “justice for Geist,” a 110-pound Weimaraner shot by a city cop within the dog's fenced-in back yard. The "missing" boy was later found sleeping in his home.
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Watch video of the man whose dog, Geist, was killed by Salt Lake City Police:
State police in West Virginia shot a family’s dog June 24 as it was reportedly running away from them during a search for a suspect on adjoining property. Shots rang out even as the dog’s owner was screaming for officers to hold their fire and let her put her dog inside.
In Maryland, two Baltimore police officers were charged last week with animal cruelty after one of them allegedly held down Nala, a 7-year-old Shar-Pei, while the other slit the dog's throat.
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Richard Bruce Rosenthal, general counsel and co-founder of New York-based the Lexus Project, said police across the country are trending toward less tolerance and less respect for people’s pets, which he sees as part of a larger trend toward more aggressive policing tactics in America.
A pet is a person’s property, which should not be summarily executed for doing what dogs naturally do, which is to investigate unknown people or other dogs who approach their territory, he asserted.
“It is a growing problem and part of it is, post 9/11, our judicial system has basically trashed the Constitution under the mantle of security, and personal rights cease to exist,” Rosenthal told WND.
“All over the country we have cops shooting dogs for no other reason than they can. And our courts and our elected officials, rather than protecting the citizens and the Constitution, simply see it as a way to take more power and more money. I think it’s a civil-rights violation. I think it’s a constitutional violation.”
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The West Virginia incident happened June 24 in a rural area of Mason County. A paramilitary unit scoured the woods bordering the property of 32-year-old Ginger Sweat. Her dog, a 6-year-old beagle-basset hound named Willy Pete, woke up from an afternoon snooze on his porch to the sound of eight officers coming out of the adjacent woods. Willy Pete scampered off to investigate. Sweat, who was putting one of her two young children down for a nap, looked out the window and saw an officer with a police dog on a leash emerge from the woods and ran out outside pleading with the officers not to shoot her dog, begging them to let her bring it inside.
The officer shot once, missing Willy Pete but sending the dog, which had arthritis in its back legs, running back toward Sweat, she told the Charleston Daily Mail. Three more shots were fired in the dog’s direction, toward Sweat and the home where her two children were sleeping, Sweat told the local newspaper. Willy Pete was hit three times and fell dead in a pool of blood behind her mobile home.
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The West Virginia State Police released a detailed statement late Monday night apologizing to the Sweat family but providing a conflicting version of what led up to the shooting of their dog. From the agency’s perspective, Willy Pete was given a chance to back off but “growled and bared his teeth” at the officers. That’s when Sgt. S.T. Harper, a 14-year veteran of the force, shot him, said spokesman Lt. Michael Baylous.
Baylous previously told WND that anytime an officer discharges his weapon, the incident comes under routine investigation.
He could not say how many times the department’s officers have shot and killed someone’s pet over the past year.
“It’s so rare; I can’t think of the last time it happened,” Baylous said. “I have no knowledge of what is happening nationwide, but it’s not a regular occurrence with the West Virginia State Police. We shoot far less animals than we do people who are a threat.”
But State House Delegate Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor, said he believes it would be a mistake to view the killing of Willy Pete as an isolated incident in West Virginia. He said it happens more often than most people realize, but most cases go unreported in the media. He’s launched an investigation and is pushing for new rules that would hold officers accountable. He sent an email to the State Police seeking more information on the June 24 incident in Mason County.
If he doesn’t get the answers he is seeking, Manypenny said he’s prepared to take the next step.
“I hope we can get some answers because we do need to find out what happened so we can make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Manypenny told WND. “I’m asking them to introduce a rule on nonlethal methods that can be used against domesticated animals, and if they won’t do it voluntarily, we need the legislature to require them to introduce a rule for nonlethal action.”
Manypenny said he believes that if the story told by the Sweat family is accurate, the police overreacted.
“I don’t know how far we’d want to go to put provisions in the law requiring unpaid leave or dismissal of an officer if they’re found to put people’s pets in endangerment, but yeah, I think it was totally uncalled for,” he sad. “But I want to call for an investigation rather than just shoot from the hip when we don’t have all of the details of what went on. So far, I’ve put in an email requesting some more transparency from the police.”
Police shot a dog in front of its owner in Hawthorne, California, because they didn’t like the owner recording them:
WND asked for a copy of the standard operating procedures outlining the rules of engagement that West Virginia State Police use when encountering pets.
Baylous said he could not provide SOPs, because the department considers that to be confidential information.
“I don’t think they have one,” Manypenny said when told of WND’s request. “A lot of law enforcement doesn’t feel they need it. From the stories I’ve seen in the newspapers, and on social media, it shouldn’t be happening this much, and I think it’s a wakeup call to the citizens of this state, because I think 90 percent of West Virginians have pets. When they’re made aware of what’s going on they become outraged, and it’s my job to make sure justice is served and we have the proper laws in place to protect their pets.”
Manypenny said he will take his investigation to the next level if the police don’t cooperate with his request for details on what happened the afternoon of June 24 in Mason County.
“I’m going to have to call on other legislators to work with me on a combined letter demanding it,” he said. “Unless they are forthright and give the information without being required to, I think we’re going to have to get a letter from several lawmakers. Our letter will probably go to the governor because he’s their boss.
“There are so many non-lethal ways they could have dealt with this dog. Pepper spray, or simply yelling at it, probably would have made him run away.”
According to the Sweat family, their dog was already running away when it was shot three times, but right now Manypenny just wants to get both sides of the story.
'Every 98 minutes'
No government agency keeps a national database on the number of pets killed by police. But animal-abuse activists have kept statistics, and they say a pet is killed by law enforcement every 98 minutes in America. They say it is largely a result of officers having little-to-no training on how to deal with dogs.
And if they will shoot a person’s pet without hesitating, that should make people concerned for their own safety, Rosenthal said.
“It’s a travesty that’s going on all over the country, and the more it happens the more our police feel emboldened to pull their guns and shoot first,” Rosenthal said.
“Is that supposed to make us feel safe? Government and police have gotten to the point where they cease to serve the citizens and believe everyone is here for their convenience. Between the civil-asset forfeiture laws, which have now become big business for police departments, and the civil rights violations in just so many different areas, it’s become really a problem. We are developing an American Gestapo.”
Rosenthal said when police conduct searches, they don’t make plans for the presence of a dog, they simply assume all dogs are dangerous and shoot them.
“Whenever and wherever this happens, people are horrified at the reckless use of police power, but basically (police) ignore it in the name of security,” Rosenthal said. “The only way it’s going to be reformed is if more and more people get lawyers and litigate. And people need to petition their state legislature to make them responsible. If pet owners would band together and say ‘we’re going to vote them out of office unless they start protecting us,’ things would change.”
An online petition at Change.org had gathered 4,442 signatures as of June 30 seeking changes in state laws in the wake of Willy Pete’s execution in West Virginia.
"Please continue to share this Petition. I have been sending it to President Obama, Governor Jerry Brown, My State Legislator, Senator Barbara Boxer, & Senator Dianne Feinstein,” wrote petition organizer Patty Jackson of Downey, California. “I have also been writing them on a daily basis, asking for police to be trained all across the United States …you can help me in this fight by contacting your State Legislator and asking them to create a bill similar to Bill SB13-226 that was signed into law on 5/13/13 by the Governor of Colorado, it's called ‘The Dog Protection Act.”
Downey said she’s heard a lot of politicians make speeches “asking the citizens of the USA to turn in their guns."
"It is now time for the police to turn in their guns in exchange for a can of Mace, whenever they encounter what they would call an aggressive pet," she said. "… It is time for zero tolerance against this escalating animal abuse in this country.”
The West Virginia State Police Facebook page also lit up with hundreds of critical comments after the killing of Willy Pete. Many were being deleted, a department spokesman admitted.
“They have numerous other pages available on FB to spew their hatred of Law Enforcement without posting to ours. Please assist us in maintaining a professional image by not responding to their vitriol,” the State Police posted on its Facebook site on June 28.
Col. Jay Smithers’ statement on the West Virginia State Police website says: “Our agency was created in 1919 and is the fourth oldest state police agency in the United States. Our sworn members have proudly served the citizens of the state with honor, bravery, and professionalism for more than 90 years.”
The bravery and professionalism of executing someone’s pet on first sight is exactly what’s being called into question following incidents like the one in Mason County.
Rosenthal said petitions and social media are useful tools, but the power of the ballot box may be the only language many politicians understand.
“Unfortunately we’ve developed a governing class of professional politicians, which was one of the biggest ills the Founding Fathers warned against,” he said. “Our politicians have no relationship to the populations they serve. But in due course it’s going to be litigated, and if it gets litigated enough, they will have to come up with a theory that courts have to accept. Unfortunately, our federal judges are more intent on getting rid of cases than on enforcing the law. They want to clear their calendars, and justice or following the law takes a back seat.”
WND has reported several cases of police shooting pets in recent years, including an incident Feb. 8 in which an officer in Filer, Idaho, was captured on video killing two Labradors.
Rosenthal said he and his wife are forming a new organization called the Voice for Animals, a nonprofit that will take on and litigate some of the most egregious animal shootings.
“To the extent we are able to find local counsel we are open to going after some of these police departments,” he said.
Recently reported police dog-shootings:
- Off-duty National City police officer shoots dog in Bonita, California, June 28.
- Newton, Iowa, family wants answers after officer shoots dog, June 24.
- Woman upset after police shoot dog in Topeka, Kansas, June 20.
- San Antonia police shoot, kill dog during drug raid on home, June 20.
- Dog dies after it’s shot by Woonsockett, Rhode Island, police June 16.
- Baltimore police officer accused of slitting the throat of dog, June 14.
- Police officer cites aggression in killing homeless man’s dog June 14.
- Police officer charged after shooting friendly dog in Sulphur, Louisiana, June 11.
- Beverly, New Jersey, cop shoots dog at close range, June 10.
- Dog shot, killed while trying to protect collapsed owner in Broomfield, Colorado, June 1.
- Round Rock, Texas, police shoot, kill family’s dog inside their home while responding to false alarm, May 30