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Two police shootings of dogs hurt people, raise new calls for training


Highlights

New officers are required to get training on animal encounters, and some agencies train all veterans as well.

Animal shootings can end careers and lead to costly civil court battles.

Pamela Chevalier-Jensen, 39, called the Harris County sheriff’s office last year to report that her house guest’s estranged husband had been issuing threats.

But as Chevalier-Jensen stood in the doorway of her Houston home on Aug. 14 holding her American bulldog, the department said, the dog became aggressive and the officer fired a shot. The bullet hit the 18-month-old dog in the face and sent fragments into Chevalier-Jensen’s leg.

The shooting then became the law enforcement agency’s focus, and the threat went unreported, Chevalier-Jensen said in an interview.

Chevalier-Jensen spent the night in the hospital and was stuck with more than $20,000 in hospital bills and veterinary costs for her dog, Junah, who survived but lost four teeth. Her friend moved out.

“She felt responsible,” Chevalier-Jensen said. “We were trying to call to help someone else, and me and my dog ended up getting shot. I don’t trust law enforcement anymore.”

RELATED: Better police training could prevent dog shootings, pet owners say

Because the shooting involved a Texas law enforcement officer, the department was required by law to report it to the state attorney general’s office. From Sept. 1, 2015, to Jan. 31, 2017, Texas departments reported shooting or killing 238 civilians, 41 of whom, like Chevalier-Jensen, were unarmed.

Two of those shootings involved unarmed people injured after officers shot at dogs. Records show that the Harris County incident was reported to the state only after a reporter inquired about it for this story.

That shooting and another one in Dallas have renewed dog lovers’ calls for all Texas officers to be trained on canine encounters. A 2016 law requires that course only for new hires.

Some large Texas law enforcement agencies, including the Austin, Dallas and San Antonio police departments, already have adopted versions of canine training departmentwide. But neither the Houston Police Department nor the Harris County sheriff’s office has done so, though the officer who shot Junah, Arsolanda Lamothe, had completed a course, state records show.

TEXAS DOG SHOOTINGS: View an interactive timeline of other cases

The shooting of Chevalier-Jensen and her pet remains under investigation, said Thomas Gilliland, a spokesman for the Harris County sheriff’s office. In a 2016 statement, the department initially blamed Chevalier-Jensen for failing to secure her dog. The department said the deputy was “aggressively approached by a canine” and shot her firearm downward, injuring the dog and Chevalier-Jensen with ricocheting fragments.

The agency described the case as “an unfortunate example of all pet owners’ responsibility to secure their animals and prevent aggressive interaction with first responders.”

Animal control call gone awry

That wasn’t the case in the other recent incident in which a Texas officer injured an unarmed person after targeting a dog. An officer in Balch Springs, a suburban Dallas department, hurt a city animal control worker and was disciplined for misuse of force and other policy violations, according to records and interviews.

The Sept. 16, 2015, incident started when animal control officer Kelly Johnson shot a tranquilizer dart at a brindle-colored pit bull who’d been running loose in a neighborhood.

The dog then jumped through a broken window of the house where it lived. Its owners were being evicted but weren’t home and had left a note saying they’d move out by midnight, records show. Not wanting to leave an aggressive dog in a place it could easily escape, Johnson called for backup, summoning Balch Springs police officer Pedro Gonzalez.

Gonzalez pointed a shotgun into the house while animal control officers Johnson and Vanessa Forsythe crawled inside a window, according to footage from his body camera. An officer opened the front door for Gonzalez, and Johnson then chased the dog to a back room, where he and Forsythe cornered it. “He was just trying to get away,” Johnson later said in a recorded interview. “I start to maybe turn, and I just heard, ‘BOOM.’ ”

RAW VIDEO: Watch the footage from Gonzalez’s body camera

Gonzalez, an 18-year veteran, said the dog attempted to bite Forsythe and was “running aggressively” when he fired. His blast missed the dog but shattered tile flooring into fragments that pierced Forsythe’s left foot through her leather boot.

The U.S. Constitution protects citizens from illegal searches and seizures, and police generally need permission, a warrant or emergency circumstances to enter a residence. Criminal defense attorney Charlie Baird, who served on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, watched the footage and said the note “couldn’t have been clearer that people were still living there.” He said the officers’ decision to enter the house without a warrant to shoot a dog seemed to be “a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment.”

When asked why the officers went inside, Balch Springs Police Chief John Haber said the home “was vacant.” Neither the homeowner nor the dog’s owner could be reached for comment.

After an internal affairs investigation, Gonzalez received a one-day unpaid suspension and was ordered to take an eight-hour class on canine encounters, completed in February 2016. Forsythe was hospitalized, underwent surgery and soon returned to work.

“We’re lucky because someone could have died,” Haber said in an interview. “There was no one in the line of sight, but (Gonzalez) had no way to tell where the shrapnel was going to go.”

Gonzalez, who happens to be the department’s spokesman, declined comment. But Haber said Gonzalez has owned up to his mistakes and “knew things should have been different. He knows there’s a better way.”

Animal shootings come at a cost

About 22 percent of the state’s 76,800 licensed peace officers have taken the canine course required only for new hires since 2016, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. The class is also required for officers who wish to advance in rank.

Anecdotally, training advocates say classes caused dog shootings to drop, though no official statistics are available.

Cindy and Mark Boling pushed for reforms after their dog was killed by a Fort Worth police officer investigating a copper theft in 2012. The couple were unloading groceries when their border collie, Lily, was shot on their front porch. Years later, Cindy Boling still habitually searches for stories on canine shootings by officers.

“We’ve gone from hundreds in a year to maybe one a month,” she said. “I think we still have a few, and I think we may always have a few.”

RELATED: Austin police get hands-on training to reduce dog shootings

Both the Balch Springs and Harris County shootings prompted no protests and little publicity. But elsewhere, similar incidents brought public backlash.

In 2013, a warrant officer went to the wrong house and shot and injured Renata Simmons’ dog, Vinny, in Leander. Soon the small department was flooded with angry phone calls, emails and comments on Facebook and Twitter, Police Chief Greg Minton said. The outcry began on a Facebook page created in the dog’s name, “Justice for Vinny,” which still has more than 5,300 followers.

“We were getting calls from Germany about what big pieces of crap we were,” Minton said. “That’s the first time I learned the power of social media.”

Cindy Boling offered help and persuaded Minton to arrange canine training for all of Leander’s 38 officers. Eventually, the vitriol subsided.

Several high-profile dog shootings, including the April 2012 shooting of a barking blue heeler named Cisco by an officer who went to the wrong address to investigate a domestic violence call, prompted the Austin Police Department in 2013 to provide the training for all sworn officers.

San Antonio created a three-hour class on animal encounters that all city police officers took in 2014 and will retake in 2018, Sgt. J.D. McKay said. All Dallas police officers must take such training, a spokeswoman said.

The Houston Police Department offers the course to veteran officers quarterly but requires it only for new officers, in accordance with state law.

Charley Wilkison, the executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, said the training is useful for all officers, who encounter a dog at about 1 of every 3 homes.

“We were being told over and over that we misread signs from an animal,” Wilkison said. “Now, they come away with a changed mindset about knowing what is a danger and what’s not. That’s the best the law could hope for.”

Pat Burnett, a lead investigator for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Texas, developed an eight-hour canine training course and taught Gonzalez and about 4,000 other Texas officers before retiring in January. He tells officers that even one bad animal shooting can end a law enforcement career, as it did for a deputy indicted on an animal cruelty charge after shooting a dairy farmer’s dog 70 miles east of Dallas in 2014. The officer permanently surrendered his badge in a plea deal to have the charge dropped.

Animal shootings also can lead to costly civil court battles. A federal lawsuit is still pending over the 2013 shooting of Julian Reyes’ dog, Shiner Bock, by an Austin police officer. Reyes is seeking compensation for his emotional loss, changes in policy and training, and “increased accountability for future dog shootings.”

“Forty years ago, a dog was a dog. Now, a dog is a part of the family, and anything we do wrong reflects on our career,” Burnett said. “Often they’ve never really thought about (shooting) dogs.”



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