As the conversation around excessive police force has pushed the country to consider novel and drastic reforms in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the widespread protests that followed, there is one area that has yet to gain widespread attention. Given the horrific brutality witnessed in Floyd’s murder and other cases of Black, brown, and poor people being killed by police officers, it’s understandable that law enforcement’s killings of pets has yet to become a major issue. Still, it is worth considering what these killings can teach us and what we might do about them. Ultimately, police killings of pet dogs only further demonstrate the racial disparities in police violence and the need for reform.
The reality of dog deaths at the hand of police says far more about how humans are overpoliced than about dogs per se. The realities of shootings associated with and at dogs reveals one of the insidious and rarely acknowledged manifestations of state violence enacted in and on vulnerable communities of color.
Moving beyond the sensational media stories and activist accounts of “puppycide” that put the number of dog killings by cops at more than 10,000 annually, we recently looked at the data on officer-involved shootings obtained from the third and fourth largest police agencies in the country. While we found the percentage of dog-related officer-involved shootings to be extraordinary, the overall numbers of dog shootings were lower than what has been cited in publications ranging from the Atlantic to Police Magazine, numbers based on a gross estimate provided by Laura Mathews, a special assistant with the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. To be sure, dog deaths at the hands of police do regularly occur, with the online posting of countless graphic videos—many of which include scenes of violence also being directed at humans—offering further evidence of the problem.
But as our analysis of the data on officer-involved shootings reveals, between 2010 and 2016, Los Angeles Police Department officers were involved in 417 shootings, with dogs being shot in more than a quarter of cases. For the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, whose officers were involved in 406 incidents between 2010 and 2017, dogs were shot 45.6 percent of the time. More alarming than the number of dogs being shot by police is where dogs are being killed by police, as we discuss in a recent study.
Looking at the location of where dogs have been shot across the city and county of Los Angeles, what emerges is a map of deadly police use of force that is highly concentrated in the region’s most impoverished communities of color. In fact, the dog-shooting cluster that we mapped sits within the larger cluster representing where humans are shot by police as well.
While arguments are often made about police pulling the trigger when feeling in fear for their lives, the data on dog shootings makes it unmistakably clear that more bullets than most of us realized are flying through particular communities. Our data suggest that dog deaths at the hands of police are a reflection of a larger problem with how state violence is enacted on vulnerable communities in myriad ways.
To be clear, to suggest that dogs in some neighborhoods pose a greater deadly risk to police officer safety than dogs in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods simply does not add up. In addition to the fact that no police officer has ever been killed by a dog while in the line of duty, public health research reveals that hospital visits for dog bites that occur across the metropolitan region of Los Angeles overwhelmingly consist of a single puncture wound to a hand of a child, with less than 1 percent of the more than 23,000 bite-related hospital visits between 2009 and 2011 requiring hospitalization of any kind.
Rather than a matter of vicious dogs residing in some areas more than in others, or a geography of “careless” pet owners, we argue that the geography of these dog killings reveals, once again, that police officers are more apt to pull the trigger in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty, particularly those with larger proportions of Black and brown residents.
Similarly, as research shows, when officers in small to midsize police departments received excess military equipment and training through the 1033 Program, the rate of dog killings increased in their respective jurisdictions. Here too, dogs, not to mention dog “behavior,” simply cannot be the problem. Rather, dog deaths further demonstrate a crisis of overpolicing of Black and brown communities.
In addition to the sheer numbers and geography of dog killings, our data also reveal that upon increased scrutiny of police use of force after the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent Ferguson protests in 2014, police started shooting dogs but not people less. Before Ferguson, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department shot upward of 2.6 dogs every month. In the post-Ferguson era, that figure dropped to fewer than one dog per month. The same trend is reflected in the LAPD data, with dog shooting declining to 22 percent of all shootings, down from 33 percent in the pre-Ferguson era.
Notwithstanding this drop in dog deaths, the rate of police shootings of humans, Black men in particular, did not drop after Ferguson. What we glean from our analysis of the data, though, is that the share of dog shootings decreased in the wake of increased media scrutiny of police shootings overall. It appears that national attention of police use of force resulted in officers being less likely to pull the trigger on dogs, but not on humans. The number of humans killed by police appears to have remained stable, though it is difficult to say for certain since there still does not exist a national police use-of-force database.
As discouraging as these numbers are, the drop in dog shootings does suggest that restraint learned through increased use-of-force training is possible and that scrutiny works, without an increase in loss of life to police officers. In fact, the number of police killed in the line of duty due to non–accident-related causes has been relatively stable over the past two decades as use-of-force training has increased, with 2013 being the year with the fewest officer deaths since 1959. Furthermore, over the past two decades, officer deaths have been far lower than the all-time highs recorded during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1970s. Of course, there is not one officer death by dog bite, let alone canine attack, represented in these data.
Adequate police training has saved lives, and when it comes to dogs, an example of proper training and restraint has been viewed over 2 million times on YouTube. In the video, Idaho police officer David Gomez, who received Defensive Tactics Canine Encounters training, lures two large and agitated dogs into his patrol car without incident. In fact, since the tragic shooting by an officer of two nonaggressive dogs in a Minneapolis backyard received widespread attention three years ago, such training has become commonplace for patrol officers in the state and across the country.
Notwithstanding the seemingly endless training that cops receive, the geography of dog shootings by police further reveals disproportionate police violence that can only be ameliorated through a concerted defunding effort.