US police shoot dogs so often that a Justice Department expert calls it an “epidemic”

Dogs as cops.
Dogs as cops.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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Police and dogs in the US have a complicated relationship. On the one hand, canines work for cops, sniffing for drugs and bombs. On the other hand, cops shoot dogs a lot—so much so that even law enforcement publications are asking, “Can police stop killing dogs?

This week, on Dec. 19, canine lovers were reminded of this violent phenomenon after a ruling came down from the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Michigan affirming that when police shot two pit bulls while executing a search warrant, they did not not violate the dogs owners’ constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable seizures.

Legally, a dog is property, and people in the US are constitutionally guaranteed the right to be free from unreasonable governmental seizures of property—killing counts as seizure—by the Fourth Amendment. Brown v. Battle Creek Police Department affirms these basic principles but found the dog killings justifiable (i.e., not unreasonable) in this case.

After the case was reported by the media, it sparked outrage online.

Public anger notwithstanding, the court’s opinion does not change the state of the law on police confrontations with canines. The opinion is based on the specifics of this case: The dog owners who were the plaintiffs did have a constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizures. But, the judge found, the killings were considered justifiable under the circumstances as officers testified to feeling imminently threatened by the animals, after one of the dogs lunged and the other barked during a drug sweep. That doesn’t mean cops are allowed to shoot any dog that makes a sound or moves—only if the officers feel threatened. Nothing’s changed.

What is new in recent years, Los Angeles attorney Mildred O’Linn told the law enforcement publication Police, is the growing awareness of canine killings and how explosive community response to a dog shooting can be. Certainly social media’s popularity has something to do with this, as, perhaps, does the fact that Americans are increasingly adopting dogs in lieu of childrearing. Whatever the reason, “the public cares about these kinds of incidents on a magnitude that is sometimes lost on law enforcement,”O’Linn says.

O’Linn, a former law enforcement officer, defends police in civil suits and is all too aware of the trouble canine killings cause. She points to Hawthorne, a city in southeast Los Angeles County, where officers shot and killed a pet Rottweiler on a public street in front of the owner in 2013. In response to the dog’s death, the city network server was shut down by the hacker group Anonymous.

The exact number of dogs killed by law enforcement officers is difficult to quantify because there is no official record of these deaths across American agencies. Laurel Matthews, a program specialist with the US Department of Justice’s community-oriented policing services office, says fatal encounters are an “epidemic” and estimates that 25 to 30 pet dogs are killed daily by police.

On the flip side, the public outcry over dog deaths is infuriating to some. In light of recent police shootings of humans—brutality often captured on video and likened to modern-day lynchings—the outrage over canine killings ignited by the Sixth Circuit’s ruling triggered more social media anger—this time about the preoccupation of white Americans with their pets rather than the death of black Americans at the hands of police.