MILWAUKEE (AP) - Jane Flint was at work when a friend called and warned her that Milwaukee police were about to search her home for endangered reptiles. She rushed home to keep her four boisterous dogs from interfering with police, but before she arrived, officers shot and killed two of the Tibetan mastiffs. She has never been told why.
Milwaukee police shoot and kill dozens of dogs each year, often saying the animals appeared to be a threat to officers or to the public. But in response to criticism and two lawsuits, police have been able to reduce that number with improved training, which began in 2012 and expands this fall. The sessions teach officers to recognize when dogs’ actions are nonthreatening or when less-lethal defense might be more effective.
Michael Tobin, the executive director of the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, said police are eager to improve how officers interact with dogs. Even one dog shooting generates so much outrage that it can take years to repair the damage to community relations, he said.
One of the lawsuits was filed by Flint, 54, who’s suing the city of Milwaukee and several police officers. She said the 2010 shootings were unnecessary because her dogs were gentle and good-natured, even if their barks were loud.
“This didn’t have to happen,” she said tearfully.
Flint was charged with mistreatment of animals, but prosecutors eventually dropped the charges.
A police spokesman said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit because the litigation is pending.
Between 2000 and 2008, Milwaukee police shot and killed 434 dogs, or an average of 48 per year. That’s according to a separate lawsuit filed by a woman whose dog was killed by officers in 2004 as they looked for an unrelated man who allegedly had a pit bull.
Since then the statistics have improved markedly. There were 41 dogs killed in 2009, and by 2012 the number was down to 28, according to the Fire and Police Commission. And officials are working to bring that number down even further.
There are a number of reasons why officers might shoot a dog. They might mistake the animal’s intentions as aggressive, or they might be caught off-guard by a friendly dog bounding out at them. Or perhaps they are resorting to a lethal option without considering less violent means first.
The Fire and Police Commission posted its first report on dog-shooting in 2010. Tobin said the report prompted officials to scrutinize the incidents more closely. In 2012, the police department also began sending officers to training where they learned how to determine when a dog might or might not be agitated, and when to use batons or pepper spray when possible rather than a firearm.
While Milwaukee’s dog-shooting numbers have improved, they still lag well behind the statistics of police in New York City, one of the few other cities to keep statistics. Training in New York City has been underway for several years.
The 28 dogs killed by Milwaukee police in 2012 were more than twice the 12 dogs killed by New York City police. That’s despite the fact that New York City’s police force is 18 times larger, and its officers responded to nearly eight times more calls for service involving dogs.
When asked for comment, Milwaukee police Lt. Mark Stanmeyer pointed to a caveat in the Fire and Police Commission report: The comparison between the two cities might be subject to differences in the way each department reports and collect data. He noted that Milwaukee police will begin a new training session in September, “but right now we are focused on homicides and non-fatal shootings,” he said in an email.
Tobin also noted that officers have plenty of contact with dogs that ends without violence. While 41 dogs were killed in 2009, another 569 were taken to animal shelters, he said.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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