Why Are Detroit Cops Killing So Many Dogs?
A Reason investigation reveals widespread, unchecked violence against pets during drug raids—including two officers who have shot more than 100.
A Clash Between Family Dogs and Militarized Police Tactics
There are currently around 83 million dogs in the U.S. Over the past century, they went from being outside farm animals to beloved family members. But at the same time that dog ownership started exploding in the U.S. in the ’70s, so did the volatile police raids used to prosecute the drug war. The use of SWAT teams rose from around 3,000 deployments per year in 1980 to as high as 80,000 a year currently, putting more heavily armed officers than ever before in potentially violent confrontations with families and their pets.
Darryl Lindsay and his dog Babycakes. A Detroit police officer shot babycakes while it was chained to a fence. The city later settled with Lindsay for $100,000.
“The two trends have collided in the family home,” says Michael Oz, director of a documentary, Of Dogs and Men, released this summer that explores the topic.
Responding to costly lawsuits and media attention, several states now mandate training for officers on dealing with dogs. Colorado passed the Dog Protection Act in 2013. (Reached for comment, the Denver Police Department says it does not track dog shootings, so it couldn’t determine whether the training had resulted in fewer incidents.) In Texas, the state legislature mandated dog training for police thanks to a three-year effort by Cindy Bolling, whose Border collie mix was shot by a police officer in 2012. And in Maryland, SWAT teams are required to report use-of-force incidents, including dog shootings, after a notorious 2008 drug raid on the house of the mayor of Berwyn Heights.
But many departments still don’t train officers on how to read dog behavior. “In most cases, at best they get no training and no policy,” Oz says. “At worst, there are departments where shooting the dog remains a matter of policy.”
In smaller cities that receive less media and legal scrutiny, some police departments have shot a shocking number of dogs. Buffalo, New York, police, for instance, shot 92 dogs between 2011 and 2014, almost a quarter of them by one officer alone. The Palm Beach, Florida, Sheriff’s Department shot 26 just in 2012.
The federal Justice Department has taken some steps to try to teach officers how to handle dogs. Dog trainer Brian Kilcommon produced a series of videos several years ago for the department’s Community Oriented Policing Services program to train local and state officers on how to read dog behavior and respond to it appropriately. The videos are free to any police department that wants to use them, although Olson, the Detroit attorney, says none of the officers he’s deposed has watched them.
Police officers and dogs, Kilcommon says, suffer from a deadly misunderstanding. The body language that police are trained to use on duty—imposing and authoritative—is the same body language that dogs read as a threat. And the behavior that dogs respond to a threat with—barking and growling—is the same behavior that leads police to shoot them.
“Dogs are there to warn the owner,” Kilcommon says. “That same warning sequence is what gets them killed, because police don’t know what they’re looking at. I fully support police officers protecting themselves from being hurt. What is troubling is in many of these situations, there is not a threat. Their lack of education and understanding creates the situation. You look at some of the videos, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re absolutely at fault.”