Police ‘puppycide’ plagues the U.S. but it is a much different story in Edmonton


Silhouette of a German Shepherd, Border Collie Mix Breed Dog, standing guard in his yard at sunset. Christin Lola / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Two Edmonton police constables arrive at a house. It’s a summer day, July 14, 2017, and it’s not known what they’re investigating. One officer keeps an eye on the front door of the home while the other makes his way down a narrow walkway around the side. 

The officer nears the ground-level side door of the house when he hears a shuffling noise from the backyard. He moves to announce his presence when a dog appears. It’s big — the officer thinks it’s a pit bull — and it’s aggressive. He tried to calm the dog down, he later wrote in a statement, but it growled, lowered its head and charged. 

“At this time I determined that the only way to escape … injury to myself or to my partner was to physically incapacitate the dog,” the statement from the officer reads. “I had only moments to make a decision and take an appropriate defensive action.

” … I decide to pull my standard issue firearm and fired one round at the charging canine.” 

Edmonton police used force against dogs five times between 2015 and mid-2017, according to reports on “control tactics” that Postmedia obtained from the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) through a freedom of information request.

The reports provide a local snapshot of a contentious issue in North American policing — the shooting or otherwise injuring of pet dogs by law enforcement. In the United States, law enforcement officials shoot dogs so often that one U.S. official calls it “epidemic.”

The Edmonton data suggests police here use force against dogs far less frequently. But the reports offer insight into the minds of officers as they make split-second decisions about how to respond to canines deemed aggressive.



Jax was shot and later euthanized by a vet after latching onto an Edmonton Police Service dog during a break-and-enter investigation early Wednesday April 8, 2015. Family Photo

Family Photo

‘Puppycide’ 

In the U.S., police shootings of dogs has become so common that it’s earned the moniker puppycide. While there are no hard statistics, Laurel Matthews, a U.S. Department of Justice official, estimates that 25 to 30 pet dogs are killed each day by law enforcement officers, according to Police Magazine. Officers in the U.S. have hit bystanders, other officers and even themselves when firing at dogs. Often the calls to which officers are responding have nothing to do with a dog. 

Michael Ozias, director of the documentary Of Dogs and Men, said the phenomena traces back to the rise of SWAT teams in the United States. The number of SWAT-style raids increased dramatically since the 1970s, he said, due to the war on drugs and the war on crime.

During that time though, attitudes toward dogs changed.

“They used to be in the barnyard, and then were in the backyard, and now they’re in the bedroom,” Ozias said in a recent interview. “They’re like family.

“You have this kind of toxic mix, where the dogs are way more present in our homes … and so is law enforcement.”

Little data on how often Canadian police shoot dogs  

Outside of news headlines, it’s nearly impossible to say how often Canadian police use force against dogs. Erick Laming, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto who studies police use of force, said there is little reliable data on how often Canadian police shoot people, let alone pets.

The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), the province’s police watchdog, does not investigate cases where officers shoot animals.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says police shootings involving dogs are largely avoidable and has called for better officer training. Its Canadian counterpart, Humane Canada, does not have a position, saying in an email that there is “not enough Canadian data or evidence to reliably frame the issue.”  

Edmonton officers, for their part, fired their weapons at dogs at least twice between 2015 and 2017, and used some other form of force three times. Details of one of those cases were redacted because they related to matters before the courts. 

One dog died at the hands of police in Edmonton between 2015 and July 2017, according to the information request. 

That dog was Jax, a pit bull euthanized after being shot in 2015. The case was widely reported in the media, but the incident report fills in harrowing details. 

The city police canine unit was called to a break and enter complaint just before 4 a.m. on April 8, 2015, according to a police witness statement written later that month. Two suspects reportedly tried to break into the garage of a home in northeast Edmonton and one was still at large. 

What we are really talking about is potential injury and the degree of it. Certainly, there are cases where lethal force is justified.”

Michael Ozias

A canine-unit officer sent police service dog Viper to track the suspect. After a few moments, the door of the complainant’s home burst open and what the officer described as a pit bull charged Viper. 

The dog latched onto Viper’s right shoulder but slipped off. The officer ran out of his vehicle, grabbed Viper by the harness and lifted him off the ground while screaming for someone to grab the other dog. Viper then slipped from his arms and the pit bull latched onto the police dog’s neck and jaw. 

The pit bull’s owner tried several times to separate the dogs but resorted to yelling at the animals. The canine unit officer, convinced Viper’s life was in danger, instructed his backup officer to shoot the pit bull. 

That officer, in a separate control tactics report, described hearing Viper’s handler shout “shoot him.” He approached the pit bull to get a clear shot — “almost straight down and not toward any people or Viper” — and shot the pit bull in the hindquarters.

The owner then took the injured dog into the home. It was later taken to an emergency vet clinic where it was euthanized. Viper survived the attack thanks in part to his thick collar and was soon back at work. 

In the second Edmonton case, a pit bull shot by police on July 14, 2017, survived. The officer fired a single round from between eight and 10 feet, striking the dog’s front left paw. The dog yelped and retreated to the backyard.  

The officer decided to shoot, he later wrote, for a number of reasons. There were no barriers between himself and the dog. The dog’s owner was nowhere to be seen. Pepper spray is “highly ineffective” against dogs, and he was wearing a beat officer’s uniform with short sleeves and shorts that offered “no level of protection to extremities, increasing the risk of exposure/injury.” 

The breed of the dog also played a role. 

“In my experience, I am also aware that it is not uncommon for individuals involved in crime to have dogs, specifically pit bulls, to act as protection for themselves and their property,” the officer wrote.

He also had past experience where “these canines are particularly unfriendly and aggressive toward people in uniform.” 



Police Service Dog (PSD) Viper sustained some injuries after responding to a break and enter call early on Wednesday, April 8, 2015. EPS file photo of Viper

Supplied

Justified? 

Vicious dogs can pose a real threat. Officers are sometimes called in to handle rabid dogs, or dogs that have attacked someone or another animal. A 2008 study in the Canadian Veterinary Journal identified 28 dog bite fatalities between 1990 and 2007. Twenty-four victims were children under the age of 12. 

But are police officers justified in using deadly force to stop one?

Ozias, the filmmaker, said no law enforcement officer has been killed by a dog in the line of duty.

“So when officers say they ‘feared for their life,’ there really isn’t any precedent for that scenario,” he said. “What we are really talking about is potential injury and the degree of it. Certainly, there are cases where lethal force is justified.”

There are sometimes other options. An article in The Atlantic notes mail carriers and meter readers work around aggressive dogs daily without killing them. Specialized training for those types of workers was found to drastically decrease instances of dog bites.

An EPS spokeswoman said the canine unit does not do any specific de-escalation training involving dogs, adding it would be difficult to attribute the relatively small number of cases to something specific.  

The five cases where Edmonton police used force against dogs were ultimately a tiny fraction of overall use of force incidents. Edmonton police logged 2,448 use of force incidents in 2017, which accounted for less than one per cent of the 261,842 files officers dealt with that year. 

The Edmonton cases also didn’t happen during SWAT-style raids, as was the case in so many U.S. dog shootings. 

Finally, Edmonton’s five cases of use of force against dogs is low when compared to U.S. numbers. An investigation by Reason magazine found police in Detroit — a city with about 260,000 fewer people than Edmonton — killed at least 25 dogs in 2015 alone. 

But Ozias said the issue deserves scrutiny regardless.

“Any time they fire their gun, or any time a person or an animal is hit, we’ve got to look at that,” he said. 

jwakefield@postmedia.com

twitter.com/jonnywakefield

How we got the information 

In July 2017, Postmedia Edmonton filed a freedom of information request for incident reports and statistical information on cases where EPS officers used force against dogs between January 2015 and July 2017. Use of force policies that pertain to animals also was sought. Edmonton police released some of the information on March 22.  

More Edmonton examples: 

Two other cases where police were confronted by a vicious dog and used some other type of force. 

  • On April 16, 2015, an EPS officer found himself between an aggressive dog and a baby stroller. The officer was patrolling in an undisclosed area and saw an open gate and two tan boxer-type dogs with no collars running in the street. The officer exited the vehicle and tried to coax the friendly animals back into the yard when a black dog that looked like a Rottweiler-cross ran from the yard growling, its teeth bared. The dog lunged at the officer, who stepped back toward the road and tried to keep the dog at bay with kicks. The officer retreated to his car and made a plan to corral the dogs when he saw the Rottweiler approach a woman walking by with a baby stroller. “I jumped out of the car and got between the dog and the stroller and pepper sprayed the dog,” the officer wrote in a report. It worked. The officer was able to corral the dogs back into the yard, secure the broken gate and call the animal bylaw office.
  • On May 12, 2017, an officer managed to intimidate an aggressive dog near a school simply by deploying a baton. The officer was alerted to the scene by a school resource officer who received a call from a school staffer about an aggressive pit bull roaming the area. The dog charged when it saw the officer. Fortunately, it tripped over its own feet, giving the officer time to draw her baton. The clicking sound from the collapsible baton apparently startled the dog, which stopped in his tracks. Despite not actually hitting the dog, the officer still filed a control tactics report about the incident.  


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