Dogs Shot by Cops: Companion Animals and Law Enforcement

When a police officer kills someone’s companion animal, it deeply affects the animal’s human family, as well as the officer, the neighborhood and the community. This sad situation is all too common and the Animal Legal Defense Fund fields many calls asking for advice. Unfortunately, there is rarely a clear path to justice.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund is a proud sponsor of the award winning documentary Of Dogs & Men—which brings to light the need for humane dog training for police officers, to avoid the unnecessary deaths of dogs.

Let’s start with the law. Companion animals are treated by the courts as personal “property.” When an animal is harmed, a lawsuit must show damage to the owner. Incredibly, civil lawsuits must demonstrate violation of the owner’s constitutional rights (known as a Section 1983 case). In tort cases, damages may be measured by the “market value” or purchase price of the animal, regardless of the egregious harm done to the animals and the emotional damage done to their human companions.

States including Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, and New York have demonstrated openness to cases that request relief beyond an animal’s market value. Emotional distress of the owner, loss of companionship and intrinsic value may be considered in some cases. A Tennessee statute allows suits for emotional distress damages due to the wrongful death of a companion animal; Tennessee’s General Patton Act, as a result of the infamous Smoak’s case, allows for up to $5,000 noneconomic damages “limited to compensation for the loss of the reasonably expected society, companionship, love and affection of the pet,” but exempts government actors.

Why Would an Officer Shoot a Dog?

cop shot dog

(Photo by Jamie Manley)

Perceived Threat – The main reason an officer makes the decision to shoot an animal is due to a perceived threat from that animal. People can protect their dogs by protecting officers. Keep dogs under control by follow all leash laws and keep dogs indoors, if possible, during law enforcement neighborhood searches and 9-1-1 calls.

Actual Threat – Some animals have been bred and trained as weapons by their owners/handlers, or are genuinely aggressive when unprovoked and/or have been amidst an attack on a person or animal when the officer discharges his weapon.

Unleashed dog – An unleashed dog is a common factor in these tragedies, whether at play or being protective. Keep your dog under your control and out of harm’s way to reduce the risk and heartbreak for everyone.

Wrong Address – When officers respond to a domestic disturbance or other complaint of an alleged crime, the tense situation creates the opportunity for errors. In some cases an officer may have the wrong address. Although it is difficult for people in their home to avoid these situations, keeping dogs away from the door in a secured area, like a bathroom, can help.

Miscommunication – In many cases, an officer may shoot a dog in a victim’s home, even while responding to a call from that victim. These instances demonstrate the need for better training on police and dog encounters and more clarity on use of force procedure for all involved. Citizens would be wise to crate dogs or isolate their animals in a bathroom after putting in any call to the police.

Protective Dog – Sometimes an owner’s companion animal may simply be barking or acting protectively, as they are inclined to do when they perceive a threat or even simply observe or encounter a stranger. Again, this is an area which demands better officer training and non-lethal conflict resolution in working with animals.

Dangerous Breed – Sometimes dogs are killed because they appear to be of a dangerous breed. If your dog is perceived as a dangerous breed, such as a Pit bull or Rottweiler, the risk factor to officers and your dog increases exponentially. Take extra precaution to properly restrain and crate your animal.

Poor Planning – Internal planning, prior to execution of search warrants, must include anticipating an encounter with a dog or dogs and options for non-lethal conflict resolution with any animals that may be encountered on the property.

What You Can Do

cop shot dog, not when dog is on leash

Dogs on leash are safer than dogs running free. (Photo by Put That Down)

If your dog has been injured or killed, state laws can determine whether the killing of the animal was legally justified. In federal court, constitutional issues may arise regarding a deprivation of rights claim. An issue called “qualified immunity” may also factor into determining liability for the shooting.

  • Contact a legal representative
  • Contact law enforcement
    • Report the shooting to 9-1-1 and ask for an immediate investigation.
    • Do not move or tamper with anything.
    • Share all information and documentation of the incident with law enforcement, including witness contact information. If the officer involved discharged his or her weapon, law enforcement may already be conducting an investigation.
  • Collect evidence
    • If law enforcement does not undertake an investigation, and if possible, before moving your dog, take photographs of the dog in the exact position where it was located and take photographs of any injuries.
    • Take your dog to a veterinarian for evaluation and treatment and if deceased, to perform a necropsy.
    • Get names, addresses and telephone numbers of any witnesses to the incident.
    • If time permits, obtain statements from witnesses about what they saw.
  • Check state and federal laws
    • Fourth Amendment laws prohibit unlawful seizure of personal property (and legally, a dog is property)–even if the officer was acting according to a warrant.
    • State provisions, however, may justify the officer’s behavior. Some states allow the shooting of unleashed or unlicensed animals, dangerous animals and animals in capture–even on personal property.
  • Determine liability
    • It is extremely difficult to sue a state agency or individual, as they will generally qualify for immunity. Exceptions may apply when a policy supported by the agency is questionable regarding an individual’s constitutional rights.
    • It is possible to defeat an officer’s qualified immunity if that officer has knowingly violated an individual’s constitutional rights. In some cases, qualified immunity is overridden by a citizen’s right to be safe and secure on their own property. The facts in individual cases will determine whether the officer acted unreasonably, and whether that officer knowingly violated a companion animal owner’s rights.
    • On rare occasion, the officer’s conduct may result in the officer facing criminal charges for animal cruelty. A prosecutor will make this determination.

Protecting Your Pup

  • Crate your dog before contacting law enforcement or if law enforcement is in the area.
  • Keep your dog away from law enforcement during times of strife (such as a 9-1-1 call).
  • Securely fix all fences, gates, and screens to prevent your dog from escaping. Overly protective dogs have often escaped through screens, gates, or holes in fences.
  • Tell law enforcement when you notify them, and before they enter the property, that there is a dog present on the property. Let them know in what room or area the dog is being kept.
  • Do not let your dog roam unleashed at any time, especially if you know law enforcement is on the way.
  • Do not leave your dog outside unattended at any time, especially if you know law enforcement is on the way.

Steps Law Enforcement Can Take

  • Provide improved training to officers about non-lethal options for handling dogs and understanding dog behavior.
  • Use alternative equipment such as: catch-poles, nets, batons, Tasers. In fact, a powder based (rather than CO2) fire extinguisher is an excellent non-lethal alternative to a gun.
  • Contact animal control before proceeding into a situation with an unleashed dog.
  • Reduce cases of wrong addresses and miscommunication–between officers, homeowners, and animal control.
  • Use interagency communication to establish protocol and procedure.
  • Avoid entering private property without warning residents unless necessary.
  • Establish clear departmental procedures with a scale of options to exhaust before discharging a weapon–procedures that reduce or eliminate the automatic shooting of an animal as a response to tense situations.
  • Improve leadership, and internal and external follow-up, on deadly force incidents.
  • Reduce officer fear and improve officer confidence and animal-handling reactions.
  • Provide officers with training in humane use of force to put an animal down with the least amount of suffering possible when lethal force absolutely must be used.
  • Demand that their state’s police training academy provide training to new officers on all non-lethal options in assessing canine behavior and dealing with pets while on duty.

Additional Resources

For more information, please see the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s resources: Wrongful Death or Injury of an Animal guide, Damages for Death or Injury of an Animal, and our resource on coping with Grief and Mourning.

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