Shot to Death by Police for Betting on a Football Game? The Rise of Paramilitary Force in America
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It’s possible that these incidents could just be attributed to rogue cops. But the fact that the police are nearly always excused in these cases—even in the more ridiculous examples—suggests there may be an institutional problem. So does the fact that only a handful of police departments give their cops any training at all when it comes to reading and handling the dogs they may encounter. In a 2012 article for the Huffington Post, my intern J. L. Greene and I looked at twenty-four recent cases of “puppycide” and called the relevant police departments to inquire about training. Only one department could confirm that its officers received training at the time of the incident in question. (Eleven departments did not return our phone calls.) That jibes with an earlier article I wrote for The Daily Beast in which both the ASPCA and the Humane Society told me that they offer such training to any police department that wants it, while few take advantage of the offer. Joseph Pentangelo, the ASPCA’s assistant director for law enforcement, who also served twenty-one years with the NYPD, told me, “New York is the only state I know of that mandates formalized training, and that’s during academy. There are some individual departments in other parts of the country that avail themselves of our training, but not many. Not enough.”
Given how likely it is that police officers will often interact with animals, you would think that such training would be common. It is at the US Postal Service. A spokesman for the USPS told me that while dog bites do happen on occasion, serious dog attacks on mail carriers are almost nonexistent. Postal workers are given regular training in distracting dogs with toys, subduing them with voice commands, or, at worst, incapacitating them with Mace. Mail carriers are shown a two-hour video and then given annual instruction on topics like recognizing and reading a dog’s body language and differentiating between aggressive charging and playful bounding, and between a truly dangerous dog and a merely territorial one.
The fact that the Postal Service offers such training and most police departments don’t lends some credence to the theory that dog shootings are part of the larger problem of a battlefield mentality that lets police use lethal force in response to the slightest threat—usually with few consequences. “It’s an evolving phenomenon,” says Norm Stamper, the former Seattle police chief. “It started when drug dealers began to recruit pit bulls to guard their supply. These dogs weren’t meant to attack cops. They were meant to attack other drug dealers who came to rob them. But of course they did attack cops. And yes, that’s awfully scary if one of those things latches on to your leg.”
But Stamper says that like many aspects of modern policing, dog shootings may have had a legitimate origin, but the practice has since become a symptom of the mind-set behind a militarized police culture. “Among other things, it really shows a lack of imagination. These guys think that the only solution to a dog that’s yapping or charging is shooting and killing it. That’s all they know. It goes with this notion that police officers have to control every situation, to control all the variables. That’s an awesome responsibility, and if you take it on, you’re caving to delusion. You no longer exercise discrimination or discretion. You have to control, and the way you control is with authority, power, and force. With a dog, the easiest way to take control is to simply kill it. I mean, especially if there are no consequences for doing so.”