Renata Simmons wrapped her arms around Vinny, a German shepherd therapy dog that was shot in the neck in June, and considered herself lucky. Among the dog owners gathered Friday outside the Austin Police Department to protest police shootings of their pets, Simmons was the only one whose dog survived.
“So many people are afraid to stand up,” said Simmons, who picked up the cause after a Leander police officer shot Vinny in June while attempting to serve a warrant at the wrong address. “Well, I’m not afraid to stand up. No one should have to fear law enforcement officers.”
Dog shootings by the Austin Police Department alone spiked to 21 last year, including the controversial shooting of a blue heeler named Cisco by an officer responding to the wrong address. Police Chief Art Acevedo promised more training, and now police cadets receive two hours of classroom instruction on handling aggressive dogs, said Assistant Chief Brian Manley. Officers are required to complete an online course that takes up to an hour.
Some pet owners say that’s not enough. They point to a successful program at the Fort Worth Police Department, where all officers receive an eight-hour course by canine expert Jim Osorio. The course stresses nonlethal techniques and includes demonstrations with his trained search-and-rescue dog. Since that department launched the program last October, none of its officers have fired on a dog. The course costs $10 per officer.
Cindy and Mark Boling pushed for that course after a Fort Worth police officer shot and killed their border collie, Lily, while responding to the wrong address in May 2012.
“That officer pulled his gun, and it changed our world,” Cindy Boling said.
Now they’re crusading for “Lily’s Law,” a bill that would require all law enforcement officers to take such a course. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, stalled in committee, largely because it was filed just before deadline and there was no time to rally a lobbying effort, Boling said. She aims to see it passed in the next legislative session.
It’s hard to say whether police shootings of dogs are on the rise. Many departments don’t track animal shootings, and, if they do, many record them in different ways, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report. Dogs are sometimes shot when officers respond to unfamiliar locations, sometimes the wrong address. The dogs are often reacting to a new person in their territory and run to investigate.
Experts agree that training officers is the key to reducing shootings.
“Officers have multiple nonlethal options like pepper spray, Tasers and batons,” said Jim Crosby, a former police officer and dog training expert who teaches police departments all over the world how to handle aggressive dogs. “But the most powerful weapon they have is their brain.”
Using proper body language and voice commands can defuse most encounters, he said. Guns are actually an ineffective weapon against dogs, he said, because they don’t stop them right away, a small moving target is hard to hit, and there is a greater risk of hitting bystanders.
“I have never heard of an instance when pepper spray was not effective,” Crosby said.
There are still some instances, however, in which officers feel compelled to fire upon a pet.
In July, a uniformed off-duty Austin police officer killed a pit bull that had slipped away from its owner and was mauling a smaller Maltese in a North Austin Petco store. Bystanders had tried to pull the dogs apart. The officer cleared the area and fired two shots. The Maltese lived.
But other shootings have drawn public fury. With the advent of social media, a dog owner’s version of events can go viral in a matter of hours. Departments receive angry calls and death threats, and they suffer an erosion of public trust.
“It’s scary to think they can come to the wrong property, kill a living thing and not even apologize for it, much less pay for it or face any kind of consequences,” said Julian Reyes, an Austin artist who helped organize Friday’s protest after his German shepherd, Shiner Bock, was killed in April by an Austin police officer.
The Austin Police Department had changed its use of force policy last year to clarify that there must be “an imminent danger of bodily harm.” The policy was also changed to say that dog shootings must be reviewed by the entire chain of command, and training requirements were changed.
So far this year, the department has seen five dog shootings. Manley said he believes the new training program has brought the department forward.
“We understand the role that pets play in the lives of their owners,” he said. “We take these incidents very seriously.”
In the meantime, the Simmons family has accrued more than $1,500 in vet bills after the Leander officer shot Vinny. They filed a claim for those costs, but the city’s insurance carrier turned them down.
They plan to sue.
The Leander Police Department will train all of its officers next week using the Fort Worth Police Department’s instructor. Manley said three officers from the Austin police plan to attend to evaluate the program as a possible training tool.