Politics & Policy

Puppycide

Police in Hawthorne, Calif., confront a dog during an arrest in July.
A surprising number of dogs are shot by cops. A new documentary looks at the problem.

On a Sunday afternoon in October of this year, Gabrielle Stropkai’s dog was shot by a police officer investigating a burglary nearby. The dog “was walking by and went ‘ruff ruff’ — just a couple of little ruffs,” a neighbor of the Stropkais’ told local television in Boise, Idado. But “she didn’t jump at him or anything.” In response, the owner remembers, the officer “pulled his weapon, asked whose dog it was, and shot her in the back of the head.” The dog died instantly.

The Stropkais are not alone in their grief. A Google search for “dog shot by police officer” returns countless stories from across the United States. YouTube, too, is full of harrowing videos. There is even a website, the bluntly titled “Dogs That Cops Killed” blog, which seeks to “collect a few of the innumerable instances of police officers killing dogs” and to push back against the “wars on drugs, peace, and liberty.”

#ad#This unlovely trend has claimed the attention of Patrick Reasonover, a libertarian filmmaker in California who is currently raising money for a proposed documentary, Puppycide, through the crowdsourcing service Kickstarter. “We’re excited by this one,” Reasonover tells me, “because on so many issues — the War on Drugs, for example — it’s impossible to move the ball. You can feature the problems with the drug war, but there are so many embedded interests that one documentary isn’t really going to solve the problem. With this issue, however? We feel that it could.”

Around eight months ago, Reasonover began to notice the proliferation of online videos of police officers shooting dogs. “People were going nuts about it,” he recalls. “There were tons of views on these things. We had dogs and we were disturbed, so we thought we’d reach out and start contacting some of the victims.” In doing so, he quickly learned that the news reports and the published footage were only the beginning of the story. Because police departments don’t keep easily accessible records of dog shootings, it is hard to gauge the scale. A recent review of public records by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals concluded that almost half of all firearms discharges by police officers involve the shooting of a dog. But nobody really knows.

Indeed, even animal-rights activists aren’t fully aware of the numbers in their communities. “They would tell us that there were, say, five news stories on these dogs that got shot,” Reasonover says. “But through my digging and persistence I found out that actually, you know, 22 were shot and no one ever knew.” One thing led to another, and he discovered that “there is a set of people who are working across the nation, through lawsuits or legislation or appealing to the Justice Department.” As part of his project, Reasonover is hoping to file Freedom of Information Act requests in all major cities and jurisdictions in the U.S. and to get hold of all firearm-discharge records. From that, he hopes to assemble a better list.

It may make brutal reading. A recent lawsuit in Milwaukee filed by a woman whose dog was killed forced that city to compile its records. “They found that a dog was shot every seven days,” Reasonover says. “Just in Milwaukee.” And, unless something changes, the number will only continue to rise. “Over the course of the past forty or fifty years, dogs have moved from the barnyard to the back yard to the bedroom,” Ledy Vankavage, the senior legislative attorney at Best Friends Animal Society, has observed. In the meantime, the drug war has been ratcheted up, terrorism has become a pressing concern, and, as Radley Balko has so distressingly chronicled, the police have become increasingly militarized. “You have this recipe for these police entering our lives more and more and more,” Reasonover explains. “The dogs are there, and so they are killed.”

“And then the police conduct their own investigation, and nothing happens.”

Reasonover makes it clear to me that he is not “anti-police,” nor does he wish to turn them into the villains of the piece. “When we’ve asked police about these things,” he says, “they, like most Americans, have dogs, and they hate it when this happens as well. But they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. There’s the union and there’s police in general, and so you’re not trained. You go out. Something split-second happens. You’re not thinking contemplatively. And if you’re not trained, you just react.”

Fear of being disciplined or sued is enough to push many to insist that they had no other option. “Plenty of police apologize,” Reasonover concedes, “but in a lot of instances, they say, ‘Your dog was aggressive, we did what we needed to do.’” In raising awareness, the Puppycide team hopes that police forces will start to offer training to their officers. “In most cases, a dog won’t charge at you unless it’s trained to. But most cops don’t know that, so they see the dog there barking aggressively; they take that as aggressive behavior, and they shoot it.”

Reasonover believes that the issue will be of interest across the political spectrum. “One of the reasons we’ve felt so excited about this documentary is that there are a lot of communities there who would share this view. At first, we thought it would be liberty-oriented people who knew our work from before. But in the past two days, we think it’s just everyone at large. Left and Right. We’ve even had people who are cat owners!”

Nevertheless, making a documentary about such a touchy subject is going to present some challenges. Reasonover and his colleagues had to recut the trailer on their Kickstarter page after potential donors complained that it was too distressing. “We included the terrible footage because we thought it was important for people to see the reality of the situation,” he tells me. “But a lot of dog owners and animal-welfare advocates basically told us that they couldn’t watch the video — it was too painful. So we have a new trailer, and it tells the story in a way that sets the stage and the tone but doesn’t show the graphic content.”

I ask Reasonover whether this will present a problem when it comes to the final cut. After all, if people are disturbed by the trailer, how will they cope with a full film? He’s not worried. “We are going to position these moments in a structured story and pace out the terrible bits,” he tells me. “We’ll have the good things about dogs and the heroes who are changing the way things are done. It won’t be compressed.” One of the problems with creating a trailer, Reasonover adds, is that it is difficult to get people to believe that this is actually happening. “People don’t think it’s true until you show them,” he says, “because they just think, ‘Well, cops are there to help people.’ But it is.”

A happy warrior, he ends on an upbeat note. “This is a solvable problem. And the documentary will go a long way to solving it.”

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.

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