The Fraternal Order of Police is the oldest and largest law enforcement organization in the United States representing thousands of line officers across Colorado. The Fraternal Order of Police nationally and at the State level has long been an advocate and proponent of standardized training and continuing education in our profession that provides professional, high quality and effective police service and a foundation for proactive problem solving and effective police response. The FOP encourages the development of effective tactical response strategies that include collaborative partnerships that enhance officer safety and the safety of the public and improve an officer’s ability to save lives, protect property, solve prevalent crimes, and provide a higher level of service to the community while reducing liability risks.
SB 13-226 endeavors to reduce the number of dogs shot in the context of law enforcement dog encounters by providing professional training on differentiating between canine behaviors that indicate imminent danger of attack to persons and benign behaviors commonly exhibited by dogs. It standardizes this training by creating a collaborative task force of law enforcement and civilian professionals to set minimum standards for qualified animal behavior experts or licensed veterinarians who will provide the standardized training to law enforcement officers and develop minimum training curricula to be used by law enforcement agencies. We support the training and the goals of this legislation. We have concerns apart from the training and standardization aspects of the bill which are addressed at the conclusion of this article.
In the United States, dogs are an integral part of society, which means police engage with dogs quite often in the line of duty. Americans love their dogs and value the companionship they provide. There is roughly one dog for every four people in the United States, and they live in a variety of relationships with humans. Police officers are no different in that regard. Many officers are dog owners. Like most dogs owners they love their pets. Most police officers were raised with dogs in their families, and have no instinctual fear of them. Some officers even have dogs as partners on the job.
Because dogs are so much a part of American society, police routinely deal with them in the line of duty, and not just when responding to calls about inhumane treatment or animal abuse, or when dogs are seen to present a danger to people. In fact, officers encounter dogs far more frequently than the average citizen. There are a variety of circumstances where a dog could be involved in a police call. These encounters happen in the course of almost every kind of police interaction with the public; from making traffic stops and serving warrants to interviewing suspects and witnesses, and even pursuing suspects. An officer will come into contact with a dog as often as once in every three calls that they respond to. And some of those dogs are aggressive.
Aggressive dogs can be deadly, and police officers come upon them in the course of their duties. The vast majority of police encounters with dogs end peacefully and with little if any problem. However, police protocol requires the safety of officers and the public to be preserved which sometimes means the unfortunate shooting of an attacking dog that cannot be restrained. Police shootings of any kind are almost always high-profile events; and the shooting of a dog has a set of issues and sensitivities all its own because such a high percentage of dog owners justifiably regard their pets as either family members or cherished companions.
As police officers, we strongly believe in our oath to protect life, all life, to the best of our ability. Officers adhere to the principal that any life taken in the performance of their job is not done lightly or without regret, including that of an animal. The force-continuum concept for police interactions is that an appropriate response is proportionate to the potential risk to the officer and the public. Those force-continuum principles also apply to dog encounters. The killing of an animal by an officer is justified when necessary to prevent injury to the officer or another person caused by the animal; to prevent or stop significant destruction of property (such as livestock); or when the animal is so badly injured that it humanely requires its relief from suffering.
As officers, we routinely approach houses in day and night time hours. We have a command presence when approaching any given situation. We approach through back or side yards for officer safety. A 911 hang-up call, a domestic violence call, a burglary in progress, or any call we receive can be a life ending event and we treat each call tactically to enhance the safety of the officer and public. We are constantly alert for anything going on around us. The manner in which police must respond to various calls can make upstanding, law abiding citizens nervous. As such we understand that a dog can detect their owner’s nervousness at our approach as well as having its own fear of our presence.
A dog is instinctively territorial and protective of their owners and their homes, some more than others. Dogs left alone on the premises are likely to see an intruder as a threat. Some dogs are nervous around strangers and some are very vocal, barking and running to greet people. Some advance on people as a means to detour their approach. Sometimes we have only seconds to determine the demeanor of the dog and prepare for the proper course of action when confronted. The officer has only moments to determine if the dog’s reaction is that of an aggressive dog or a dog reacting from fear.
If all dogs were well socialized and had gone through basic obedience lessons (either at home or in classes) there would be a lot less problems with dominant and over aggressive dogs, and far fewer situations resulting in the use of force. However, not all owners maintain their dogs to the same level of positive, humane care. Isolated dogs that have not had regular, positive interaction with people may be uncertain, fearful, or aggressive when encountering people or other animals. Some owners keep dogs exclusively on chains, in kennels, or in yards, and deny them the opportunity for positive interaction with human beings. Some owners abuse their dogs and foster mean, aggressive, and vicious behavior. And some may have obtained dogs for reasons other than pet ownership such as guarding, protection, or irresponsible breeding. In the case of abused dogs these dogs have reason to fear humans and may try to drive away the threat. Dogs of this nature can attack quickly, viciously, and with little warning.
Police officers receive regular intensive training in use of deadly force. Deadly force is used to stop a serious threat to life. A police officer’s decision to use deadly force is made and is over in matter of seconds. These men and women are highly trained when it comes to dealing with the dynamics involved in the use of such force. The circumstances present for justifiable use of deadly force are the same whether from people or animals. A decision to use deadly force is based on the totality of the circumstances present at the time the decision is made, and it is based on a reasonable belief at the time the decision is made there is an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death to the officer or others.
It is easy to “Monday morning quarterback” an officer’s decision to shoot a dog in the line of duty. Most people derive their information from the media, and we all know the media often drifts far from all the facts. What you can’t replicate is that officer’s perspective, the officer’s reasonable belief to act with force based on all the circumstances known at the moment of the decision. A bite from a dog can potentially be a career ending injury for an officer depending on where the bite or bites was received. Such a bite could have a long recovery time as well as a painful one. There is also a concern about rabies. Is the dog vaccinated and what is the potential for capturing the dog to test for same? Was this dog intentionally sent to bite the officer or is this merely a defensive dog defending its territory? All of these concerns and surrounding circumstances present have merit in deciding how to deal with the dog’s advancement, and an officer’s decision to use force. All of these will dictate the officer’s course of action.
Most Police Departments have policies and procedures in place for handing aggressive animals and wildlife. Most police departments’ use-of-force policies do not differentiate between humans and animals. Officers and their departments do not want to shoot aggressive dogs. It is a last resort to be used only when circumstances require it. It is in the interest of every department to reduce such occurrences. The Commerce City Police Department for example, requires its officers attend mandatory training on dog encounters. Many other departments provide similar training. Most departments train their officers to handle loose aggressive dogs, and have equipment available for these encounters. This training includes how to approach dogs and how to read their behavior. Additionally, many police departments do not have animal control services available 24 hours seven days a week. Many of the smaller departments have no animal control officers at all, and as such police officers are sent in their place to handle a wide variety of animal calls. Those officers receive training on a variety of situations involving dealing with animal problems.
In spite of this, the fact remains that police training in Colorado on dog encounters is neither uniform nor standardized. And some departments offer no training at all in this area. SB13-226 seeks to correct that by creating a collaborative task force to set minimum standards for required training of local law enforcement officers, and develop training curricula to be used by local law enforcement agencies that will emphasize how to recognize common dog behaviors and how to employ nonlethal methods to control dogs when possible; and assist local law enforcement agencies in developing policies and procedures to that end.
However, we have concerns in regards to the impact this bill will have on local public safety budgets by mandating this training. Training of this nature will impact already strained budgets. Since late 2007 cities and counties have been severely impacted by the ongoing recession. Loss of revenue has forced local governments to slash public safety budgets. As a result most agencies have seen staffing levels reduced, equipment purchases put on hold, hiring freezes, training cut back, and wages and benefits reduced or frozen. With legislation mandating this training local governments struggling financially will have to make further cuts in key areas crucial to the delivery of services in order to accommodate this mandate. This bill should include a funding source to assist local government. This could be accomplished by assessing additional fees for animal licensing or rabies vaccination. That would alleviate a concern shared by the FOP and local governments alike.
Additionally, we take exception that this legislation applies only to municipal police and county sheriffs. It does not mandate this training to the many armed state law enforcement officers who, in the course of their daily duties, have regular encounters with dogs; i.e. state troopers, university and college police, and parole officers. We believe this training should extend to all law enforcement officers who encounter dogs on a regular basis. We support most of what this bill seeks to achieve, and appreciate being included as a part of the state task force this bill creates to develop and oversee the training.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is well aware of our position. The FOP has been working closely with the bill sponsors and they have been gracious enough to incorporate some changes that we suggested. Their cooperation has been greatly appreciated. We are committed to continue to work with the sponsors as this bill makes its way through the legislature.
Post note: The Task Force has been meeting and the work is moving forward in a positive matter. The State FOP is an integral part of this collaborative committee. The deadlines in the bill will be met, and we anticipate quality standardized training will be the result of this legislative effort.