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Untrained in animal control, police pull guns when attacked

Three dogs were shot dead by law enforcement officers in two separate incidents in September. Shock and condemnation followed, along with questions:

Did the officers really have to kill the dogs? Couldn't they have used other weapons, like Tasers or pepper spray? Was pulling the trigger their only choice?

Yes, both officers said. In each case, they justified using deadly force because they feared for their lives and the lives of others. It's their mission to protect human life first.

But there's also this: Most street-level officers in Florida receive no training or tools to help them deal with animals.

It is not taught at the state's police academies. Tampa Bay's major law enforcement agencies don't offer training, either. And police say their nonlethal arsenal doesn't work so well on animals.

So why not arm those officers with the right training and tools, animal advocates say, to prevent future deadly encounters?

"Any occupation that puts you in someone's home means you have a one in three chance of encountering a dog," said Randall Lockwood of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "We feel that police should have training to recognize the conditions that put them at risk and teach them the appropriate level of force."

But law enforcement says they don't need that training. They rely on animal control experts who have it. Besides, police say, their hands are already full dealing with humans.

"We are not animal control officers," said St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt.

• • •

Law enforcement agencies allow their officers to use deadly force to defend themselves and others from "death or serious injury," as the St. Petersburg Police Department policy puts it.

That also applies to a "dangerous animal," the policy reads. The officers in last month's shootings say that's exactly what they faced:

St. Petersburg police Officer Slobodan Juric killed two leashed dogs on Sept. 12 after they attacked an unleashed, elderly blind dog and were about to turn on him and others, police said.

Pinellas County sheriff's Deputy William White shot dead a stray on Sept. 26 that deputies said had already bitten one person, evaded capture, ran loose on U.S. 19 and was about to pounce on an animal control officer.

The owners of the dogs killed in St. Petersburg were especially incensed because their dogs were on leashes. But the owner of the unleashed dog said at least one of them had sunk its teeth into his pet during the melee and wasn't letting go.

Both officers went right back to work afterward. The shootings are still under investigation.

• • •

Rick Chaboudy, founder and president of the Suncoast Animal League in Palm Harbor, has been in the animal rescue field for 26 years. He's captured thousands of strays.

It's impossible to judge what the officers faced last month, he said, considering those dogs were already on the attack.

"Anytime that you have a dog that's already made an attack, whether on a human being or another animal, that wild instinct kicks in," Chaboudy said. "That's where the danger is."

The key, he said, is control:

"Most dogs have no intention of harming anybody. They're just scared out of their minds. You have to go in and control them."

He said doing that takes training and some equipment: a metal animal control pole with a loop to grab the dog's neck and bite-proof gloves. Total cost: up to $200.

But the vast majority of officers on the streets of Tampa Bay and Florida don't have that equipment or the training to use it.

• • •

The curriculum of Florida's police academies is set by the state. It included some animal training until 2004, then it was dropped.

Officials didn't think officers encountered animals often enough to justify it. "You just can't teach everything for a lot of reasons, including resources," said Dwight Floyd, bureau chief of training for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

What about nonlethal devices? St. Petersburg police Sgt. Tim Brockman said they work better on humans than animals.

Using a Taser on an attacking dog is discouraged because they only work if both probes hit the target. The animals might be too small and fast to hit. Pepper spray can be effective but the department doesn't consider it reliable enough to recommend.

That's why police agencies say they rely on animal control specialists. Dealing with animals isn't in their job description.

"Every officer is eminently trained to use their firearms," Proffitt said. "But we're not trained to trap alligators or deal with dangerous animals."

Only those in specialized fields get animal training, like canine handlers and agricultural deputies.

But Lockwood, a senior vice president at the ASPCA, believes all officers should learn how to better handle dogs. Training could keep them from having to draw their firearms on aggressive dogs.

"If you understand dog behavior, if you know how to gain control of the situation," he said, "there's usually going to be alternatives to lethal force in a potentially dangerous dog situation."

He also disagreed on the use of pepper spray. He said federal studies show it works very well, but that it's confused with tear gas, which doesn't work.

Another good tool, he said, is one every patrol officer already has on the duty belt: a collapsible metal baton.

"The simple act of snapping the baton open causes the majority of dogs to back off," he said.

• • •

Chaboudy sees another reason for more police training: It may become a necessity. Budget cuts and a bad economy could end up sapping police of public and nonprofit animal services, he said.

SPCA Tampa Bay told the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office that as of Sept. 23 it is no longer able to provide many of the animal care services it used to offer to law enforcement.

That's why sheriff's spokesman Marianne Pasha said her agency is studying whether its deputies should be trained to deal with animals on their own. "Due to cutbacks, we really need to look into that," she said.

The state also is considering whether to add animal training in 2012. In the latest statewide survey of officers, many say they're increasingly forced to deal with animals.

For now, officers can still call animal control for help. But Chaboudy can see a future where officers could lose that backup. "There might not be anybody out there to help them," he said. "They'll be on their own."

Untrained in animal control, police pull guns when attacked 10/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 2, 2010 7:47pm]
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