Detroit council OKs tougher rules for dangerous dogs after mauling death

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The City Council unanimously approved Tuesday tougher rules for owners of vicious dogs that would subject them to misdemeanor charges and educational training. 

The strengthened law, spearheaded by Council President Brenda Jones, comes after the mauling death of 9-year-old Emma Hernandez. The girl was attacked by three pit bulls while riding her bicycle in an alley near her home in southwest Detroit.

The deadly encounter prompted fear and outrage from the community and calls for action against violent dogs and problem pet owners.

At the home of Claudia Stapleton, aunt of Emma Hernandez, stuffed animals, candles, balloons and photographs of Emma Hernandez are set in a memorial in Detroit on Tuesday, August 20, 2019.

Jones previously headed up an overhaul of the city's animal control law after a similar fatal mauling involving 4-year-old Xavier Strickland in 2015. Those rules, approved in spring 2017, restricted tethers outdoors to three hours and required dogs be monitored and have food and water.

After the Tuesday's vote, Jones said the new legislation aims to "prevent another human being from being mauled to death by a dangerous dog" and to spare "another parent from having to go through the agony of burying their child."

Detroit's new animal control director Mark Kumpf said Tuesday that the new ordinance provides multiple designations for nuisance animals, potentially dangerous, dangerous and vicious dogs. Each classification, he said, has different levels of enforcement to ensure public safety.

The previous law only let the city decide if a pet was dangerous or not, "and if it didn't meet the criteria there was no enforcement action that could be taken," Kumpf said. "This gives us a lot of steps in between where we can essentially address these animals with the owners addressing responsibility issues, and then put things in place that can potentially protect public safety."

Detroit Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, who represents southwest Detroit, said she wants Emma's family to know "there's people who love them and care for them and want to make sure that this doesn't happen to anyone else."

"This legislation is intended to protect kids who just want to go outside and play and protect families on their way to school," she said. "At the same time, helping people become better pet owners."

Castaneda-Lopez noted Tuesday that certain provisions, including the crackdown on owners of dangerous dogs, will immediately will go into effect.

Violators, she said, will be subject to misdemeanor charges and losing their animals. Detroit's District Court, under the law, could also order vicious animals that have attacked be destroyed. 

"If your dog is dangerous and is taking someone's life, then you're going to be held accountable for that," Castaneda-Lopez said. "For the people who really are just being blatantly harmful to their animals, neglecting and causing fear in the community and posting a threat to kids and families, we want to make sure that they're held accountable immediately."

The law will also require dog owners who receive citations to undergo educational training to become a more responsible owner. 

To beef up enforcement, the city in December announced the creation of a new animal control division. The office is now deploying inspectors by district to better respond to dangerous dogs and irresponsible owners.

Francisco Hernandez, uncle of 9-year-old dog-mauling victim Emma Hernandez, grieves the tragic loss of his niece as he stands with Tira Nowden, 9, of Detroit beside a makeshift memorial in front of Emma's house.

The overhaul for Detroit Animal Care and Control is the latest effort to turn around the department long plagued with inadequate staffing and facilities and revolving leadership.

Under the new structure, the city's General Service Department has assembled a team of seven inspectors — one in each of Detroit's council districts — to attend community meetings, speak at schools and provide a neighborhood point of contact for residents dealing with loose dogs and bites.

The city's animal care duties remain under the Detroit Health Department. Those functions, overseen by Kumpf, cover sheltering, care and vaccinations as well as licensing and adoptions.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said the administration supports the stronger law.

"It will give the team at DACC the support it needs to hold dog owners accountable and help them improve public safety," Duggan said in a statement, adding that with its added staff and hours the office is "starting to see a real improvement."

Castaneda-Lopez noted the department's changing leadership and the lack of stability within the department in the last few years. Kumpf joined the department in September, replacing Charles Brown who resigned last spring. 

"We're hoping that the new director as well as this new legislation and the conversations we will have in the upcoming budget cycle will give them the resources they need," said Castaneda-Lopez, noting 18 new animal control officers have been hired and are now on the streets. "They've been operating with not enough resources and really inconsistent leadership and we're hoping that stabilizes."

The health office and animal control partnered with Detroit's administration and the council on the ordinance. 

At the end of 2019, the average monthly live release rate, which includes animal adoptions, transfers or returning stray dogs to owners, was 77%. Kumpf has touted a goal of boosting the department's live release rate to 90% in 2021, which would get Detroit's facility ranked as a no-kill shelter.

The office, he noted, also has expanded hours and rolled out a new public awareness campaign.

"The increase in staff and the ability for us to enforce this ordinance means that it's meaningful legislation, it's not simply a piece of paper," Kumpf said.