A les­son fromGrover Beach maul­ing: We need im­proved over­sight of at­tack dogs

The Tribune (SLO) - - Opinion - BY THE TRIBUNE ED­I­TO­RIAL BOARD

It was no “tragic ac­ci­dent” that killed 64-year-old David Fear and badly in­jured the neigh­bor he was try­ing to res­cue, 85-yearold Betty Long.

It was a grue­some at­tack by a re­tired po­lice K-9 that had man­aged to break through a fence and run loose in a Grover Beach neigh­bor­hood.

“Ac­ci­dent” di­min­ishes what oc­curred that day; this was a night­mare that di­rectly re­sulted from an er­ror in judg­ment.

The dog’s owner, for­mer Grover Beach po­lice of­fi­cer Alex Geiger, 27, be­lieved a wooden fence was strong enough to hold the dog —even though his room­mate had re­ported see­ing a small hole in the fence on the very day of the at­tack. Geiger briefly checked the fence, then went back on duty.

Last week, a jury found Geiger, 27, not guilty of three felony charges: two counts of fail­ing to con­trol a dan­ger­ous an­i­mal and involuntary man­slaugh­ter.

We re­spect the jury’s de­ci­sion, though this is one of those in­stances

when the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem de­fies logic.

A prison or even a jail sen­tence would have ac­com­plished noth­ing, yet it’s hard to fathom that some­thing so se­ri­ous would not even lead to a mis­de­meanor con­vic­tion and pro­ba­tion.

But here’s the thing: There was a high bar for the prose­cu­tion to meet, even for the lesser charges of fail­ing to con­trol a dan­ger­ous an­i­mal.

For a con­vic­tion, there must be proof that the owner let the an­i­mal run free, or failed to use or­di­nary care in keep­ing it.

The prose­cu­tion al­leged Geiger was neg­li­gent be­cause he failed to prop­erly se­cure Neo, a Bel­gian Mali­nois he had been paired with at his pre­vi­ous job with the Ex­eter Po­lice Depart­ment.

The de­fense suc­cess­fully coun­tered that there are no stan­dards for how re­tired K-9s should be housed.

In other words, there is no stan­dard for judg­ing “or­di­nary care.”

That must be cor­rected; even though fa­tal dog at­tacks are rare, and at­tacks by re­tired po­lice K-9s even rarer, the con­se­quences are so hor­rific that ev­ery pre­cau­tion must be taken to make sure these dogs are safely and se­curely housed.

“These are not or­di­nary dogs, not or­di­nary pets, and yet there are no stan­dards for keep­ing them in our com­mu­ni­ties,” Los An­ge­les at­tor­ney Ken­neth Phillips writes on his blog, Dog Bite Law.

Phillips, who spe­cial­izes in dog bite cases, be­lieves there should be na­tional stan­dards not only for re­tired po­lice dogs, but also for other po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous ca­nines, such as guard dogs. Oth­er­wise, own­ers can try to skirt the law in their own state by re­lo­cat­ing their pets.

“Dogs proven to be vi­cious should be put down, not re­lo­cated across state lines or sent to an­other coun­try,” he told us via email.

Na­tional stan­dards would be ideal, but as a more im­me­di­ate step, we urge Cal­i­for­nia law­mak­ers to es­tab­lish statewide stan­dards to hold own­ers of at­tack dogs more accountable.

And no, ac­count­abil­ity should not be left to civil courts, as the de­fense ar­gued in the Geiger case. A civil judg­ment is small com­fort for the fam­ily of some­one maimed or killed in a dog at­tack. More must be done to pre­vent these bru­tal in­ci­dents from hap­pen­ing in the first place.

Var­i­ous po­lice de­part­ments al­ready have stan­dards for off-duty, work­ing po­lice dogs. These could be adapted to re­tired dogs — and ide­ally, to other dogs trained to at­tack.

The city of Ana­heim, for ex­am­ple, re­quires an off-duty po­lice dog to be housed in a locked kennel at the han­dler’s home. The dog can be let out of the kennel “while un­der the di­rect con­trol of the han­dler” and al­lowed to so­cial­ize with the han­dler’s fam­ily “for short pe­ri­ods of time and un­der the di­rect su­per­vi­sion of the han­dler.”

The city of Lyn­wood re­quires off-duty K-9s to be housed ei­ther in a se­cure kennel or yard ap­proved by a ca­nine sergeant. It also lim­its K-9s to playing with im­me­di­ate fam­ily mem­bers and only with fam­ily pets — in other words, no romp­ing with the neigh­bor kids or their dogs.

These may sound like harsh re­stric­tions, but if a dan­ger­ous an­i­mal is go­ing to live in a res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hood, the safety of res­i­dents must come first. Not only should there be stan­dards in place for se­cur­ing an­i­mals, there also should be in­spec­tions by lo­cal an­i­mal con­trol of­fi­cers to en­sure the reg­u­la­tions are fol­lowed.

As a trib­ute to David Fear and Betty Long, The Tribune strongly urges lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies, the Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s Of­fice and lo­cal law­mak­ers to pro­mote pas­sage of statewide stan­dards for hous­ing dan­ger­ous dogs.

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