One of the latest signs of progress in the effort to convince law enforcement agencies to take animal cruelty seriously is the uptick in the creation of animal cruelty units in police departments and offices of district attorneys and attorneys general.
The first state-level special animal unit was created in January 2015 by Attorney General Mark Herring of Virginia, with Assistant Attorney General Michelle Welch at the helm. Prior to taking over the unit, Welch had already distinguished herself as a champion of animals. In 2012, AWI presented her with the Albert Schweitzer Medal in recognition of her work to promote diligent prosecution of animal cruelty crimes. (See AWI Quarterly, winter 2012.) Since Virginia started the ball rolling, the attorneys general of Missouri and New York have added such units, and more states are expected to follow.
District attorneys’ offices also are creating special units to prosecute animal cruelty crimes. As of this date, 13 such specialized units exist in the United States. New York leads the way with five, located in the counties of Albany, Erie, Nassau, Queens, and Staten Island. The Queens Animal Cruelty Prosecutions Unit—the first of its kind in New York City—was instigated by prosecutor Nicolette Caferri. She proposed it to District Attorney Richard Brown after she handled an appeal in the conviction of an animal cruelty case. Brown agreed and the unit was formed in January 2016 with Caferri in charge. California has four such units, in Fresno, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and (most recently) Sacramento counties. The four remaining county-level units are in Florida (Orange/Osceola), Massachusetts (Essex), Texas (Dallas), and Washington (Pierce).
Some municipal police departments are also organizing special animal cruelty investigative units. The Los Angeles Police Department has an animal cruelty task force and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has an animal cruelty unit. While there is no exact count of how many police departments are creating special units for animal cruelty crimes, new ones do seem to be surfacing. El Paso’s, formed in December 2017, is one of the most recent. The unit (pictured above) is comprised of four detectives, a sergeant, and an officer. Two detectives who helped lobby their chief to form the unit noted that information available on AWI’s website was useful in convincing Chief Greg Allen to approve their request. Now, according to Sergeant Sandra Zamudio, the chief is “100 percent behind this unit.”
Although newly formed, the El Paso Police Department’s animal cruelty investigative unit has already demonstrated its worth. As of this writing, five people have been arrested on serious animal cruelty charges (all involving dogs), including the owner of Fergie, a 15-year-old boxer found bleeding, emaciated, and suffering from maggot-infested rotting wounds. Fergie had to be euthanized, but others among the injured and neglected dogs have recovered and have been placed in homes.
In sum, law enforcement is getting it: Animal cruelty is serious and deserves their attention. These specialized animal cruelty units, dedicated to investigating and prosecuting animal crimes, are being adopted as a way to better serve animal welfare and the community at large.