ST. PETERSBURG — The officer who shot and killed two dogs attacking a blind dog in September was cleared Wednesday by St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon and a shooting review board.
Officer Slobodan Juric was "justified" in using his .40-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistol to shoot dead two dogs, the board ruled. The officer said he used deadly force because the attacking animals were dangerous to himself and others trying to pull the dogs apart.
The patrol officer came under intense public criticism after the shooting. The owners said there was no need to shoot two dogs who were leashed, and one of the owners threatened Juric at the scene.
Three days later the officer received a threatening letter. It contained a white powder purporting to be anthrax. A floor of police headquarters had to be temporarily evacuated.
The chief said Wednesday's decision was welcome news to the 25-year-old officer, who has been on the force for 17 months.
"I think he felt vindicated," Harmon said. "I don't think there was any pleasure at all in shooting those dogs. My sense from him was he felt he did what he had to do. But he wasn't happy about it."
But in clearing his officer, the police chief also conceded that the department's policies for dealing with animals are sorely lacking.
That's why the chief also ordered a police committee to study how the St. Petersburg Police Department can better train and equip officers to deal with animals. They'll report back in 120 days.
"It's not an easy issue, and that's why I think law enforcement agencies don't tackle it," Harmon said.
In fact, Florida's police recruits don't receive any animal training at all, and most street-level officers aren't equipped to deal with animals. Usually police rely on animal control agencies for help.
There was no such help for Juric when he was checking a report of a suspicious person the evening of Sept. 12 in the 4600 block of Sixth Avenue N.
It was around 8 p.m. Chris Clark was walking his dog, a 1-year-old Rottweiler named Quincy, and Missy, a 7-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever that belonged to Joan Caldwell. The dogs were both on leashes.
Then an unleashed, blind 11-year-old golden retriever named Sadie wandered over. The other two dogs turned on the blind dog. Clark was knocked over and bitten by his own dog. The owner of the golden retriever said the Rottweiler's jaws were locked on Sadie.
Juric said the dogs snapped at him when he tried to help. Fearing they were all in danger, Juric said he had to use deadly force.
Afterward some complained that Juric fired too close to them. But the investigation said the officer moved to a safer angle when he fired. The report also noted that investigators learned the dead dogs had a "well-known pattern of aggressive behavior."
The report notes that witness accounts "varied" from each other, but it said there was enough proof that the dogs were a threat.
The new committee also will study the department's 21 other dog shootings in the past four years. Eleven dogs died, but in all the incidents the officers' actions were justified after a review.
Harmon, though, said he didn't know if any kind of new equipment or training could have helped Juric do his job that night.
Dogs and humans were so close together that the officer's other nonlethal tools — his Taser, his baton, his pepper spray — would have been useless, the chief said.
"Even if the officer had a dog pole and bite gloves," Harmon said. "In this instance it may have been the same (result)."
The chief also wondered what would have happened had the officer not acted.
"Say there was no human endangered," he said. "Is an officer just going to let two dogs attack a third dog and kill it?"
Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8472.