Some 10,000 dogs are shot by police officers every year. What happened to pepper spray?
In June of last year in a blue-collar suburb of Columbus, Ohio, called Whitehall, a policeman named Jonathan Thomas was walking back to his car after investigating a hit-and-run.
A voice called out from a house in the neighborhood, saying that a woman had cut herself. Thomas walked toward the house and a dog slipped out the front door—40 pounds or so, a mixed breed. Officer Thomas said later that he felt personally threatened, which, as in jurisdictions all over the country, is all the criteria necessary to shoot.
Thomas shot, missed the dog, and hit Ava Ellis instead. Ava was 4 years old at the time, and the bullet shattered her thigh. Her mother held her while they waited for the ambulance, and Ava asked if she was going to die.
Am I going to die? How would you like hearing that question from your own 4-year-old? How would you like hearing that question and not knowing the answer?
The little girl has since gone through several surgeries, which rang up more than a quarter of a million dollars in medical expenses as well as a settlement of $800,000 or so—which city officials paid, before a jury might have potentially imposed a figure more in line with damage that goes well beyond medical bills. Which is to say, you do not just shoot a 4-year-old with a big-bore pistol and declare it’s all over because she regains use of the leg.
The Columbus Police Department had no comment when contacted, and almost 16 months later, the matter is still unsettled; Officer Thomas has not been charged, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
Here is the shooting from the police perspective, offered by Jason Pappas, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police: “This is an unfortunate incident but the officer was within his right to use force to subdue that dog. The dog was presenting a threat to the officer and he was within his right to discharge his firearm.”
On Feb. 13, 2016, New York Police Department Officer Ruben Cuesta answered a domestic-violence call at an apartment building in the Bronx. Hearing the noise outside, a woman named Yvonne Rosado opened the door to see what kind of noise it was. Her dog, Spike, squirmed out, sniffing the floor, wagging his tail.
Cuesta looked at the animal for perhaps five seconds—a security camera captured the incident on video—and took out his pistol. Rosado began to scream. “Friendly! He’s friendly,” and Spike continued to sniff the floor and wag his tail. He was still wagging his tail when Officer Cuesta shot him in the head.
Cuesta was reportedly sent to a hospital with ringing ears, and the case went to NYPD’s Force Investigation Division, subject to a review board, subject to easing out of public view if and when the New York Daily News finally lets go.
Cuesta was likely told he had what’s called tinnitus—ear-ringing, in layman’s terms—from shooting a dog that was sniffing around on its own stairwell, wagging its tail. Which, by the way, is called being a dog.
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment on this story, but their Citizen Complaint Review Board recently concluded that Cuesta — who remains on active duty — had abused his authority, and recommended he be retrained.
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A man named Brandon Carpenter and his puppy, Arzy, a 14-month-old mix of Labrador retriever, golden retriever and Newfoundland, hit the town of Sulphur, Louisiana, a western suburb of Lake Charles, in 2014. Brandon and a friend, 21-year-old Logan Laliberte, were on the road from Maine—traveling musicians.
A heavy rainstorm came in suddenly, as rainstorms do in that part of the country, and they saw an open-backed box truck parked in a lot near the local newspaper. They all climbed in—Brandon, Logan, and Arzy—to wait out the storm, and according to Carpenter, they all went to sleep.
Enter some solid citizen who called the police, and soon Officer Brian Thierbach arrived and made the arrest. Brandon tied Arzy to a nearby fence, and the musicians were handcuffed while the officer searched the back of the truck. At one point, according to a newspaper employee who’d seen the police cruiser pull up outside, Thierbach was even petting the puppy for a moment.
Moments later, Thierback turned around and shot the dog—who was still tied to the fence—and then threw its body into a garbage bag. Thierback claimed later that he was nipped on the heel by the puppy, but the newspaper employee said no such thing occurred. Carpenter alleges that Officer Thierbach smirked during the encounter.
Following public uproar Sulphur Chief Lewis Coats said that the officer violated procedure and policy regarding use of force and conduct, and that Thierbach had resigned. Chief Coats added, “The actions of Officer Thierbach did not represent what I expect from the officers of the Sulphur Police Department. Those of us who serve as law enforcement officers do so with the responsibility of serving and protecting the community as professionals.”
In the end Thierback pleaded no contest to misdemeanor animal cruelty and was sentenced by David Ritchie of the 14th District of the Court of Louisiana, who said: “I didn’t hear Mr. Carpenter admit he’d done anything wrong. Just because it was raining doesn’t mean he can trespass.”
The judge added that he’d had police training in the military and was taught you never know what to expect.
Still, the cop had pleaded and Judge Ritchie—judges are elected in Louisiana—had to do something. Perhaps he weighed the local sentiment around traveling musicians versus those around local police, before blowing the former cop a kiss —a $250 fine, a short stint with community service, and a year’s probation.
The U.S. Department of Justice says police officers shoot about 10,000 dogs a year. This when there is not a dog among 50 who won’t run or back off from pepper spray. We don’t pretend to know how many of the shootings are as shameless or reckless as the ones mentioned here, but it’s obvious that as a bottom line you shouldn’t be allowed to kill a dog because you feel “threatened,” which is now the standard.
There are people, after all, who are afraid of all dogs, and some of them are cops.
More to the point, there are also people who don’t value any kind of life but their own kind, and some of them are cops, too. And those are the last people in the world who ought to be cops.