Wrongful Police Dog Shootings: Is There Any Relief?

Mayor Cheye Calvo of Berwyn Heights, Md., was changing for a meeting last July after having returned home from walking his dogs, when SWAT team members of the Prince George’s County Police Department burst into his house without knocking and opened fire. Before the mayor could make it down the stairs, his two black Labrador retrievers, 7-year-old Payton and 4-year-old Chase, had been shot to death. Mayor Calvo was the innocent victim of a plot by drug smugglers to traffic over 400 pounds of marijuana by delivering it to unsuspecting recipients. 

The police department expressed regret for the shootings of Payton and Chase, but the officers involved claimed they felt threatened by the dogs, who were well-known and loved in the community, especially by children. The tragic killings of the Calvo family dogs represent just two of several dog shootings by police across the country over the past year.

In April, New Orleans police responding to a tripped residential burglar alarm shot and killed Jax, a 4-year-old Doberman. At the time of the shooting, Jax was recovering from spine surgery and could barely walk. Eight shell casings were found near the scene.

In October, an Oklahoma police officer got out of his car at a residence to ask for directions, then shot and killed a 4-year-old Airedale terrier named Bruiser, who came running down the driveway toward him. The officer claimed he feared for his life, but at no point did he attempt to get back into his vehicle to protect himself from the dog who had never bitten anyone before and had not so much as lunged at the officer.

In November, police fatally shot an 11-year-old German Shepherd-Lab mix named DeoGee nine times when attempting to serve a warrant to a man. DeoGee suffered for an hour until animal control arrived and euthanized him.

Many wrongful dog shootings could be avoided if police officers were trained to differentiate between dangerous and unthreatening dogs, as well as to subdue those who are aggressive through non-lethal means. Providing officers with proper education, training and the tools needed to handle dogs with non-lethal force are critical in the prevention of wrongful dog shootings.

When a wrongful shooting does occur, the legal system can provide some relief to bereaved families. Since pets are considered personal property under state law, most lawsuits for pet shootings against police officers and the municipalities that employ them are filed under theories of property law. However, state laws vary so widely that legal action may be possible in one state, but not another.

One legal option available at the federal level currently being tested with increasing frequency by pet owners is the filing of a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. §1983. This statute allows for lawsuits against government employees who have violated an individual’s Constitutional rights. Recently, several courts have ruled that the killing of one’s pet by a public official constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, which may be remedied via a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. §1983. Since the Fourth Amendment provides the right to be free from “unreasonable” seizures of property, a pet owner must prove that the killing was in fact unreasonable by showing that his or her possessory interest in the animal outweighed the state’s interest in public safety. 

Even if a pet owner can establish that much, another hurdle may remain: Government agencies and officials generally have immunity, which shields them from liability for actions performed in their official capacity. A pet owner can overcome this defense if the court finds that a reasonable officer would have known that his or her actions violated the pet owner’s Constitutional right. State law and the facts of the case will allow the court to determine whether immunity will vindicate a police officer or municipality responsible for the killing of a pet. 

Hopefully, these suits will not only cause police departments to initiate training programs on how officers should handle situations involving dogs, but will act as deterrents to police officers everywhere, making them think twice before pulling the trigger on an animal.