Two po­lice shoot­ings of dogs in­jured peo­ple

Not all agen­cies re­quire of­fi­cers to take a course in ca­nine en­coun­ters.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Eva Ruth Mo­ravec Spe­cial to the States­man

Pamela Che­va­lier-Jensen, 39, called the Har­ris County sher­iff ’s of­fice last year to re­port that her house guest’s es­tranged hus­band had been is­su­ing threats.

But as Che­va­lier-Jensen stood in the door­way of her Hous­ton home on Aug. 14 hold­ing her Amer­i­can bull­dog, the depart­ment said, the dog be­came ag­gres­sive and the of­fi­cer fired a shot. The bul­let hit the 18-month-old dog in the face and sent frag­ments into Che­va­lier-Jensen’s leg.

The shoot­ing then be­came the law en­force­ment agency’s fo­cus, and the threat went un­re­ported, Che­va­lier-Jensen said in an in­ter­view.

Che­va­lier-Jensen spent the night in the hospi­tal and was stuck with more than $20,000 in hospi­tal bills and vet­eri­nary costs for her dog, Ju­nah, which sur­vived but lost four teeth. Her friend moved out.

“She felt re­spon­si­ble,” Che­va­lier-Jensen said. “We were try­ing to call to help some­one else, and me and my dog ended up get­ting shot. I don’t trust law en­force­ment any­more.”

Be­cause the shoot­ing in­volved a Texas law en­force­ment of­fi­cer,

the depart­ment was re­quired by law to re­port it to the state at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice. From Sept. 1, 2015, to Jan. 31, 2017, Texas de­part­ments re­ported shoot­ing or killing 238 civil­ians, 41 of whom, like Che­va­lier-Jensen, were un­armed.

Two of those shoot­ings in­volved un­armed peo­ple in­jured after of­fi­cers shot at dogs. Records show that the Har­ris County in­ci­dent was re­ported to the state only after a re­porter in­quired about it for this story.

That shoot­ing and an­other one in Dal­las have re­newed dog lovers’ calls for all Texas of­fi­cers to be trained on ca­nine en­coun­ters. A 2016 law re­quires that course only for new hires.

Some large Texas law en­force­ment agen­cies, in­clud­ing the Austin, Dal­las and San An­to­nio po­lice de­part­ments, al­ready have adopted ver­sions of ca­nine train­ing de­part­men­twide. But nei­ther the Hous­ton Po­lice Depart­ment nor the Har­ris County sher­iff ’s of­fice has done so, though the of­fi­cer who shot Ju­nah, Ar­solanda Lamothe, had com­pleted a course, state records show.

The shoot­ing of Che­va­lier-Jensen and her pet re­mains un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, said Thomas Gilliland, a spokesman for the Har­ris County sher­iff ’s of­fice. In a 2016 state­ment, the depart­ment ini­tially blamed Che­va­lier-Jensen for fail­ing to se­cure her dog. The depart­ment said the deputy was “ag­gres­sively ap­proached by a ca­nine” and shot her firearm down­ward, in­jur­ing the dog and Che­va­lier-Jensen with ric­o­chet­ing frag­ments.

The agency de­scribed the case as “an un­for­tu­nate ex­am­ple of all pet own­ers’ re­spon­si­bil­ity to se­cure their an­i­mals and pre­vent ag­gres­sive in­ter­ac­tion with first re­spon­ders.”

An­i­mal con­trol call gone awry

That wasn’t the case in the other re­cent in­ci­dent in which a Texas of­fi­cer in­jured an un­armed per­son after tar­get­ing a dog. An of­fi­cer in Balch Springs, a sub­ur­ban Dal­las depart­ment, hurt a city an­i­mal con­trol worker and was dis­ci­plined for mis­use of force and other pol­icy vi­o­la­tions, ac­cord­ing to records and in­ter­views.

The Sept. 16, 2015, in­ci­dent started when an­i­mal con­trol of­fi­cer Kelly John­son shot a tran­quil­izer dart at a brindle-col­ored pit bull that had been run­ning loose in a neigh­bor­hood.

The dog then jumped through a bro­ken win­dow of the house where it lived. Its own­ers were be­ing evicted but weren’t home and had left a note say­ing they’d move out by mid­night, records show. Not want­ing to leave an ag­gres­sive dog in a place it could eas­ily es­cape, John­son called for backup, sum­mon­ing Balch Springs po­lice of­fi­cer Pe­dro Gon­za­lez.

Gon­za­lez pointed a shot­gun into the house while an­i­mal con­trol of­fi­cers John­son and Vanessa Forsythe crawled in­side a win­dow, ac­cord­ing to footage from his body cam­era. An of­fi­cer opened the front door for Gon­za­lez, and John­son then chased the dog to a back room, where he and Forsythe cor­nered it.

“He was just try­ing to get away,” John­son later said in a recorded in­ter­view. “I start to maybe turn, and I just heard, ‘BOOM.’ ”

Gon­za­lez, an 18-year vet­eran, said the dog at­tempted to bite Forsythe and was “run­ning ag­gres­sively” when he fired. His blast missed the dog but shat­tered tile floor­ing into frag­ments that pierced Forsythe’s left foot through her leather boot.

The U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion pro­tects cit­i­zens from il­le­gal searches and seizures, and po­lice gen­er­ally need per­mis­sion, a war­rant or emer­gency cir­cum­stances to en­ter a res­i­dence. Crim­i­nal de­fense at­tor­ney Char­lie Baird, who served on the Texas Court of Crim­i­nal Ap­peals, watched the footage and said the note “couldn’t have been clearer that peo­ple were still liv­ing there.” He said the of­fi­cers’ de­ci­sion to en­ter the house with­out a war­rant to shoot a dog seemed to be “a clear vi­o­la­tion of the Fourth Amend­ment.”

When asked why the of­fi­cers went in­side, Balch Springs Po­lice Chief John Haber said the home “was va­cant.” Nei­ther the home­owner nor the dog’s owner could be reached for com­ment.

After an in­ter­nal af­fairs in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Gon­za­lez re­ceived a one-day un­paid sus­pen­sion and was or­dered to take an eight-hour class on ca­nine en­coun­ters, com­pleted in Fe­bru­ary 2016. Forsythe was hos­pi­tal­ized, un­der­went surgery and soon re­turned to work.

“We’re lucky be­cause some­one could have died,” Haber said in an in­ter­view. “There was no one in the line of sight, but (Gon­za­lez) had no way to tell where the shrap­nel was go­ing to go.”

Gon­za­lez, who hap­pens to be the depart­ment’s spokesman, de­clined com­ment. But Haber said Gon­za­lez has owned up to his mis­takes and “knew things should have been dif­fer­ent. He knows there’s a bet­ter way.”

An­i­mal shoot­ings come at a cost

About 22 per­cent of the state’s 76,800 li­censed peace of­fi­cers have taken the ca­nine course re­quired only for new hires since 2016, ac­cord­ing to the Texas Com­mis­sion on Law En­force­ment. The class is also re­quired for of­fi­cers who wish to ad­vance in rank.

Anec­do­tally, train­ing ad­vo­cates say classes caused dog shoot­ings to drop, though no of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics are avail­able.

Cindy and Mark Bol­ing pushed for re­forms after their dog was killed by a Fort Worth po­lice of­fi­cer in­ves­ti­gat­ing a cop­per theft in 2012. The cou­ple were un­load­ing gro­ceries when their bor­der col­lie, Lily, was shot on their front porch. Years later, Cindy Bol­ing still ha­bit­u­ally searches for sto­ries on ca­nine shoot­ings by of­fi­cers.

“We’ve gone from hun­dreds in a year to maybe one a month,” she said. “I think we still have a few, and I think we may al­ways have a few.”

Both the Balch Springs and Har­ris County shoot­ings prompted no protests and lit­tle pub­lic­ity. But else­where, sim­i­lar in­ci­dents brought pub­lic back­lash.

In 2013, a war­rant of­fi­cer went to the wrong house and shot and in­jured Re­nata Simmons’ dog, Vinny, in Le­an­der. Soon, the small depart­ment was flooded with an­gry phone calls, emails and com­ments on Face­book and Twit­ter, Po­lice Chief Greg Min­ton said. The out­cry be­gan on a Face­book page cre­ated in the dog’s name, “Jus­tice for Vinny,” which still has more than 5,300 fol­low­ers.

“We were get­ting calls from Ger­many about what big pieces of crap we were,” Min­ton said. “That’s the first time I learned the power of so­cial me­dia.”

Cindy Bol­ing of­fered help and per­suaded Min­ton to ar­range ca­nine train­ing for Le­an­der’s 38 of­fi­cers. Even­tu­ally, the vit­riol sub­sided.

Sev­eral high-pro­file dog shoot­ings, in­clud­ing the April 2012 shoot­ing of a bark­ing blue heeler named Cisco by an of­fi­cer who went to the wrong ad­dress to in­ves­ti­gate a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence call, prompted the Austin Po­lice Depart­ment in 2013 to pro­vide the train­ing for all sworn of­fi­cers.

San An­to­nio cre­ated a three-hour class on an­i­mal en­coun­ters that all city po­lice of­fi­cers took in 2014 and will re­take in 2018, Sgt. J.D. McKay said. All Dal­las po­lice of­fi­cers must take such train­ing, a spokes­woman said.

The Hous­ton Po­lice Depart­ment of­fers the course to vet­eran of­fi­cers quar­terly but re­quires it only for new of­fi­cers, in ac­cor­dance with state law.

Charley Wilk­i­son, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Com­bined Law En­force­ment As­so­ci­a­tions of Texas, said the train­ing is use­ful for all of­fi­cers, who en­counter a dog at about 1 of ev­ery 3 homes.

“We were be­ing told over and over that we mis­read signs from an an­i­mal,” Wilk­i­son said. “Now, they come away with a changed mind-set about know­ing what is a dan­ger and what’s not. That’s the best the law could hope for.”

Eight-hour train­ing course de­vel­oped

Pat Bur­nett, a lead in­ves­ti­ga­tor for the So­ci­ety for the Prevention of Cru­elty to An­i­mals of Texas, de­vel­oped the eight-hour ca­nine train­ing course and taught Gon­za­lez and about 4,000 other Texas of­fi­cers be­fore re­tir­ing in Jan­uary.

He tells of­fi­cers that even one bad an­i­mal shoot­ing can end a law en­force­ment ca­reer, as it did for a deputy in­dicted on an an­i­mal cru­elty charge after shoot­ing a dairy farmer’s dog 70 miles east of Dal­las in 2014.

The of­fi­cer per­ma­nently sur­ren­dered his badge in a plea deal to have the charge dropped.

An­i­mal shoot­ings also can lead to costly civil court bat­tles. A fed­eral law­suit still is pend­ing over the 2013 shoot­ing of Ju­lian Reyes’ dog, Shiner Bock, by an Austin po­lice of­fi­cer. Reyes is seek­ing com­pen­sa­tion for his emo­tional loss, changes in pol­icy and train­ing, and “in­creased ac­count­abil­ity for fu­ture dog shoot­ings.”

“Forty years ago, a dog was a dog. Now, a dog is a part of the fam­ily, and any­thing we do wrong re­flects on our ca­reer,” Bur­nett said.

“Of­ten, they’ve never re­ally thought about (shoot­ing) dogs.”

CON­TRIB­UTED

Ju­nah, an Amer­i­can bull­dog, was in­jured along with her owner, Pamela Che­va­lier-Jensen, in Au­gust when a Har­ris County deputy shot at the dog when Che­va­lier-Jensen opened the front door of her home. She had sum­moned of­fi­cers to re­port a threat on a house guest. Che­va­lierJensen was hit with bul­let frag­ments.

CON­TRIB­UTED BY BALCH SPRINGS PO­LICE DEPART­MENT

A brindle-col­ored pit bull was tran­quil­ized but oth­er­wise un­in­jured Sept. 16, 2015, when a Balch Springs po­lice of­fi­cer shot at the dog in­side a house and missed. The shot­gun blast struck a tile floor, and frag­ments in­jured an an­i­mal con­trol of­fi­cer try­ing to wran­gle the dog.

An­i­mal Con­trol’ s Vanessa Forsythe was hit by frag­ments.

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