One out of every four times Los Angeles police officers intentionally fired their guns during the last 20 years, the target was not a man; it was man’s best friend.
Though the killing of a pit bull by an officer three weeks ago sparked anger among animal rights activists, LAPD data show that shooting incidents involving dogs are commonplace.
Since 1985, police have shot at more than 465 dogs, killing at least 200 and wounding at least 140, according to incident reports.
The standard an officer must follow when shooting a dog is the same as for shooting a person: as a last resort to avoid death or serious injury. When dogs are involved, officers often believe they are going to be bitten, which is why many of the animals shot by police were pit bull terriers, Rottweilers and other breeds that have reputations for being vicious.
Police said that was the case Feb. 16, when LAPD Officer Gina Iglesias shot and killed Teri, a pit bull in downtown Los Angeles. Teri was the pride of animal lovers who find homes for stray dogs, and had been featured in a calendar put out by the organization Downtown Dog Rescue.
According to police, Teri bared her teeth and seemed on the verge of attacking Iglesias and other officers who were on bike patrol and riding in an alley off 7th Place. Local volunteers who rescue dogs and workers in the industrial neighborhood on the eastern edge of downtown condemned the shooting as unnecessary.
Comparing the rate of dog shootings with those of other police agencies is difficult because there are no nationwide statistics. In New York, with a population more than twice as large as Los Angeles’ and a police force nearly four times as big as the LAPD, officers have shot at 803 dogs since 1990.
The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, though smaller than the Los Angeles Police Department, has shot at more animals over the last decade. Though LAPD officers have shot at an average of about 26 dogs a year in that period, sheriff’s deputies have fired at an average of 36 animals a year, almost all of them dogs.
Randall Lockwood, a psychologist and animal behaviorist with the Humane Society of the United States who has worked with police agencies on issues relating to dogs, said most officers are not adequately trained to handle confrontations with aggressive dogs. Lockwood said he thought the number of dogs shot at by LAPD officers was “surprisingly high.”
“Police departments throughout the country need to develop better training so officers can more accurately assess which dogs are life-threatening and dangerous and which ones are not,” Lockwood said.
“Our opinion is that often, lethal use of force is not required or justified,” he said. “In many cases, a shooting is a knee-jerk reaction by an officer not familiar with dogs. We have to acknowledge that there are situations where they have to shoot a dog, but we feel that’s relatively rare.”
Growling dogs baring sharp teeth can present frightening situations for police officers, officials said. And if dogs charge at officers, sometimes there is little they can do but shoot to protect themselves, they said.
“Look at what our officers face,” said Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell, who oversees the department’s review of all officer-involved shootings. “There are areas of the city where packs of dogs are running around loose, with no leash and no license. Often, vicious dogs are owned by people in the most high-crime areas that the officers are being called to.”
McDonnell, who was not surprised by the number of canine shootings over the years, said officers are trained to shoot dogs only as a last resort.
Police agencies throughout the country have grappled with controversial dog shootings, some of which have resulted in more public outcry than shootings of people.
Such was the case with the New Year’s Day 2003 killing of Patton, a terrier-bulldog, during a traffic stop on Interstate 40 in Tennessee.
Patton’s owners were pulled over in the mistaken belief that they had committed a robbery. As the dog’s owners were held at gunpoint, Patton climbed out of the car and, according to the Cookeville, Tenn., police officer who shot him, “charged toward me growling and in an aggressive manner.”
Patton’s owners, however, told the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville that the dog was “as harmless as Scooby-Doo” and was wagging his tail when he was shot.
The shooting resulted in widespread criticism of the police, and the city paid $77,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the dog’s owners. The department also started a training program to enable officers to better deal with potentially dangerous dogs.
In Los Angeles, no easily discernible trends emerge from an analysis of LAPD shooting data maintained by the Los Angeles Times.
Through most of the early 1990s, dog shootings hovered around 20 a year -- roughly one for every four times that officers fired on suspects. But in 1998 and 1999, officers shot at dogs more often than at people, with 42 dog shootings in 1998 and 43 in 1999. In recent years, dog shootings dropped to lower levels. Last year, for example, there were 20.
In shootings involving canines, two dozen officers have been bitten. Seven officers accidentally shot their partners or bystanders while fending off aggressive dogs.
The data show that officers hit dogs with gunfire in about three-quarters of all shooting incidents involving the animals, an accuracy rate about 10 percentage points higher than that for shootings involving people. Police killed more than 40% of the dogs they fired on, which was considerably higher than the death rate for people, who were killed in about a quarter of police shootings.
The data also show that police officials found 13% of shootings involving people “out of policy,” compared with 3% for shootings involving canines.
Most of the LAPD’s dog shootings since 1985 have occurred in the LAPD’s 77th Division in South Los Angeles.
The Foothill Division in the San Fernando Valley had the second-highest total from 1985 to 2003, the most recent year for which complete records are available.
Dog experts and even several high-ranking LAPD officials said they thought that in some cases, officers resorted to deadly force too quickly.
It was a concern that then-Chief Daryl F. Gates expressed in 1986, encouraging officers to seek alternative ways to defuse encounters with dogs.
Former Chief Bernard C. Parks also was troubled by the number of dog shootings, and he developed a training regimen aimed at reducing them. However, implementation of that program was postponed because department officials said reforms mandated by a federal consent decree after the Rampart corruption scandal were more important.
McDonnell said recruits at the Police Academy receive instruction on how to deal with vicious dogs. They are told to shout at them and use fire extinguishers, batons or pepper spray to scare them off. Officers also get training updates through department bulletins and are shown training videos once every year during roll call meetings, he said.
Joseph Pentangelo, a retired New York City police detective who works as an investigator for the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said informing officers about nonlethal alternatives is essential.
“If, as a police officer, you see a dog barking and your first instinct is to reach for a firearm -- that is not the thing to do,” Pentangelo said. “This should be the last resort.”
A review of dog shootings by The Times found that some confrontations probably could have been avoided, particularly in cases in which officers failed to notice “Beware of Dog” signs posted on residential properties.
Some dog owners who saw police shoot their pets said officers had panicked and overreacted to the alleged threat.
Edgar Javier, 20, saw police shoot his neighbor’s 10-year-old German shepherd, Lady, on June 27, 2000.
He said Lady barked at the officer but did not advance out an open gate in the frontyard. Javier said the officer could have pulled the gate shut if he thought Lady was a threat.
“Did he have a right to shoot her? No,” Javier said.
Nearly two dozen LAPD officers have found themselves in situations in which they shot a dog more than once over their careers, including one who shot three in the span of two years.
Several experts said that suggests an officer who may be poorly trained, overly fearful of dogs or cavalier about killing someone’s pet.
“There may be some officers who liked using dogs as target practice,” said Lockwood, who reached the same conclusion about the use of pepper spray by some postal workers during a study several years ago.
Some LAPD officials attribute the number of dog shootings to a proliferation of people owning aggressive breeds such as pit bulls.
If it were up to Daniel Koenig, a former LAPD commander who has studied dog shootings for the department, pit bulls would be outlawed.
“I think pit bulls are just like assault weapons,” said Koenig, who resigned last year as executive director of the Los Angeles Police Commission. “There’s no place for them in society.”