Dog Protection Act seeks to cut dog shootings by police

You may have seen news stories about police shooting dogs in the past year. According to state legislators, there have been 30 such shootings in the last five or six years in Colorado, many of them in tragic circumstances.

In January, mixed-breed Ziggy was shot and killed in his own yard in Commerce City by an officer responding to a call but at the wrong address. Also, Zoey was shot on her owners’ property when an officer responded to a 911 call the officer knew was a mistake. Scar, who was reportedly lounging peacefully in his own yard, was shot in the face by an officer investigating a misdemeanor charge. Thus far, no officers have faced criminal charges for such shootings, but there are civil cases underway.

This is not just a Colorado issue. In 2005, the Hell’s Angels club of San Jose, Calif., won a total of $1.8 million in a settlement from numerous law enforcement agencies for, among other things, killing three innocent dogs during a raid. Reviewing the case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals made special note the shooting of the dogs was unnecessary because police had ample warning the dogs were there and did not even try to develop a plan for getting past them safely.

Dog shootings in Colorado prompted state Sens. David Balmer, R-Centennial, and Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, as well as state Reps. Lois Court, D-Denver, and Don Coram, R-Montrose, to introduce the Dog Protection Act in early 2013. The act passed smoothly and without notable opposition, becoming law in May 2013. The act sets out ambitious goals for law enforcement agencies across the state – all of which will go into effect this year.

The act makes it “the policy of this state to prevent, whenever possible, the shooting of dogs by local law enforcement officers in the course of performing their official duties.” To effectuate that policy, the act requires training for police officers and sheriffs’ deputies. By Sept. 1, each law enforcement agency is required to develop a training program of at least three hours in length, and by Jan. 1, 2015, every existing law enforcement officer in the state must take the training. The training must be “wholly or principally” overseen or delivered by a “qualified animal behavior expert” or licensed veterinarian. The training has to cover basic dog-behavior information, options for avoiding dog attacks, options for safely capturing a dog and defensive options in dealing with dogs.

The act also requires all police departments and sheriffs’ offices to adopt policies and procedures for use of lethal and nonlethal force against dogs.

The policies must identify and explain common canine behaviors, differentiating between situations putting people in imminent danger and those not posing such danger. The policies must provide alternatives to lethal force against dogs. Finally, they must provide a reasonable opportunity for a dog owner to control or remove his or her dog from the immediate area before force is used against it. The act acknowledges all such policies must give law enforcement officers the leeway and professional discretion to consider the actual circumstances when applying them.

These assignments may sound daunting, but the act gives some assistance to local agencies. Under the act, a 19-member task force was created, tasked with developing a model-training program for use by local agencies if they wish. The task force will also define the credentials required for the animal-behavior expert or veterinarian who will oversee or give the training locally. The task force includes veterinarians, animal behaviorists, attorneys and multiple law enforcement representatives. The act specifically calls for one member of the task force to be a victim (dog owner) of an officer-involved dog shooting. The Colorado Federation of Dog Clubs, the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association and the Colorado Bar Association all have appointed task force members. The task force is specifically required to develop the model-training program by July 1.

The Dog Protection Act is the first of its kind in the nation. It tackles a tricky problem under ambitious timelines. The task force is broad-based and large, perhaps unwieldy in light of its tight deadlines. Nonetheless, the act represents proactive and aggressive action by the Legislature, and it will be interesting to see whether it meets its goal of protecting dogs and cops from unnecessary and disastrous encounters.

Kate Burke is an attorney practicing animal law with Colorado Animal Law, LLC, in Durango and can be reached at (970) 385-7409 or kburke@coloanimallaw.com.

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