Editorial: Police need more empathy for pets


Under the leadership of Chief James Craig, the Detroit Police Department has made significant improvements to how its officers interact with citizens. But when it comes to animals, there’s still too much of a shoot-first approach.

In Detroit, police shoot a comparatively large number of dogs every year, mostly related to drug raids, which could involve something as simple as suspicion of marijuana possession.

While officers have the right to protect themselves against animal attacks, they shouldn’t shoot without clear provocation or an imminent threat to their life. That is completely up to their discretion, and too often pets have become collateral damage.

Detroit police have shot at least 21 dogs this year, according to a November report from Reason magazine. Officers killed at least 25 dogs in 2015.

Thorough records of how many dogs are shot by police nationwide are hard to come by because there’s no required reporting on police and dog encounters. But the report found that much larger Chicago had 84 incidents in which an officer fired a weapon over that same time span. New York police killed nine dogs in 2014, and the Los Angeles Police Department admitted to killing eight dogs in 2015.

Calling fatal police/dog encounters an “epidemic,” a program specialist at the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services estimated that 25-30 pet dogs nationwide are killed every day by cops.

Lawsuits filed by pet owners often conflict with the official reports of an incident. In most cases, dogs that were killed are described as “vicious” and deadly force was required for self-protection. The Reason report found that one Detroit officer has shot at least 40 dogs while on duty, and another destroyed 67 animals while with the Police Department.

Those are staggering numbers. And while there are pit bulls and other intimidating dogs in any major city, that doesn’t give officers the right to essentially take property by killing otherwise non-threatening pets.

Courts are increasingly finding that killing a dog is a Fourth Amendment seizure of property and are demanding more proof of the danger that might have justified the shooting.

Detroit police officers face uncertain situations daily in their line of work, but perhaps better training on how to interact with animals could lessen the number of dogs killed. Dogs often get noisy and snarl to protect their owners, and sometimes bite. But it may be possible to subdue them with Tasers or distract them in other ways.

Colorado has a law on its books protecting dogs from unnecessary shootings, and has worked on training officers to better handle encounters. Similar steps would be good for the Detroit Police Department.

Whether it’s a person or a pet, reducing violent encounters should be the goal.