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Sheriff’s deputies Terry Lindsey and Diana Ciaramellano are walking into a backyard in a residential neighborhood, responding to a tripped burglar alarm, when a mid-sized dog runs out to see who has traipsed onto its masters’ property. The dog barks and growls at the deputies from about 15 feet away, every bit of its body language conveying a clear message: LEAVE.
Deputy Lindsey yells at the dog to go away while unclipping the pepper spray from his belt with his left hand. To his right, Ciaramellano unholsters her gun, in case Lindsey’s pepper spray doesn’t work. She could reach for her taser, but a dog is a small, fast-moving target from straight ahead, and the prongs the weapon fires are finicky.
The dog ignores the commands and stands its ground. What happens next in this kind of situation could be either another routine day for the Harford County Sheriff’s Department or end up as a major lawsuit, complete with local, maybe even national, headlines: “Maryland Cops Kill Family Dog in Backyard.”
The dog charges forward, and Lindsey fires the pepper spray. It works. The animal yelps and retreats. The encounter probably takes fewer than 10 seconds.
The large projector screens surrounding the deputies go blank. They are standing in a big, dark room on the second floor of the Harford County Sheriff’s Department in front of a VirTra use-of-force simulator—a high-tech video tool that trains deputies how to respond to real-life situations in real time. The guns, tasers, and spray canisters are all modified with lasers that the projector screens detect and react to.
The simulator can hold hundreds of different live-action video scenarios, from active shooters to domestic violence calls to traffic stops—each one with several branching options that an operator at a computer can choose from, depending on how the officer responds—but these Harford County deputies are among the first in the country to use it to learn how to deal with dogs.
The initiative is the brainchild of the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA), a nonprofit group that represents sheriffs across the country, and it’s part of an increasing recognition by law enforcement that it has a problem with dogs. Reason travelled to the Harford County Sheriff’s Department for a demonstration of how officers are being trained to fix it.
Over the past decade, countless stories of police shootings of dogs have sparked public outrage and led to huge lawsuits against departments. But NSA deputy executive director John Thompson says police officers typically receive little to no training on how to deal with dogs, beyond using lethal force, despite the near-guarantee that they will encounter one at some point in the course of their duties.
“I’m a perfect example,” Thompson, now retired from law enforcement, says. “I would have just shot a dog if he came at me biting and barking and snapping. It’s just what we did. It was taught to us. You neutralize the problem. It was an acceptable practice in the older days and still seems to be across the country in many agencies.”
The NSA says additional pilot programs are being planned in Orange County, Florida, and Oakland County, Michigan. The group is also working with the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program to develop a comprehensive course for police to learn how to handle and deescalate canine encounters.
“We identified that this was a problem and created this training so we could keep officers safe, pets safe, agencies from paying out multi-million dollar lawsuits, and honestly, so we can keep the relationship between police and community a whole lot better, because it’s just rampant,” Thompson continues. “Every day you hear of an officer shooting a dog. It’s not because they’re crazy, warmongering people who want to shoot a dog, it’s just they’ve never been trained or told different.”
For full text and links, read “How to Keep Cops From Shooting Dogs” at Reason.com here: https://reason.com/blog/2018/09/14/how-to-keep-cops-from-shooting-dogs
Video edited and produced by Meredith Bragg. Camera by Meredith and Austin Bragg. Text by C.J. Ciaramella.
Music: “Cylinder Two” by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)