Editor’s note: The ideas expressed in this commentary are Chris Hall’s and not necessarily those of Dogster. Chris does raise relevant points, however, especially considering the dogs who are dying, seemingly without good reason, at the hands of law enforcement officers, and we welcome discussion on controversial topics. Let us know how you feel in the comments section, and please keep your remarks civil.
I’m genuinely getting the feeling that there’s some kind of massive conspiracy to make me feel bad about all the places I once lived. First, there was this item about the residents of my old Brooklyn neighborhood, Fort Greene, using their dogs as an excuse to flaunt their sense of entitlement. Now, there’s this piece from Wes Siler, who says that a couple of Ventura County sheriff’s deputies threatened to kill his dog.
During the 10 or 15 seconds it took for me to grab Wiley’s collar and clip on his leash, the cop who hadn’t drawn his gun remarked loudly, “You do not appear to have control of your animals.” To me, that sounded like he was saying that as a precursor to shooting them or as a suggestion toward further action.
“He’s just a little puppy!” I responded. Wiley is 21 months old and, while a big dog, is still just a goofy, floppy little baby that cries in my arms when he gets scared.
The cop with the gun then approached me and explained in great detail how he was authorized to shoot any dogs he felt were a threat. “I can shoot any dog that approaches me,” he said holding his gun, in a gloating manner. “All I have to say is that I feel they’re a threat.”
My dismay at reading this story from Ventura County is significantly less than when I read the story about entitled douchebags taking over my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I grew up in a Ventura County suburb called Thousand Oaks, and based on my time there this is pretty much what I’d expect from the cops in that area. One of my own experiences with the local police involved spending a night in Ventura County jail because I’d failed to take care of a fix-it ticket to put a front license plate on my car. Only a year before I left for good, the suburb just over the hill from me, Simi Valley, established its place in history by turning loose the four cops who beat Rodney King.
It is not an area known for encouraging restraint in the police.
But despite my history, I don’t read Siler’s story as being primarily about Ventura County cops. It’s just about cops. It’s about how cops in America act now as a matter of course. We’ve not only allowed them to become this, but we’ve encouraged it. Large chunks of the American people demanded that the authorities do anything to stop the street gangs, drug dealers, illegal immigrants, terrorists, or whatever other menace loomed in the popular mind.
We got what we asked for. We cheered on the cops who got things done because they “didn’t play by the rules,” and now we have police who play by no rules. We regularly get reports of police gunning down dogs and people alike, and it should be no surprise.
This week Frank Serpico, the cop who campaigned against NYPD corruption in the 1960s, wrote an excellent piece about how police remain out of control:
Today the combination of an excess of deadly force and near-total lack of accountability is more dangerous than ever: Most cops today can pull out their weapons and fire without fear that anything will happen to them, even if they shoot someone wrongfully. All a police officer has to say is that he believes his life was in danger, and he’s typically absolved. What do you think that does to their psychology as they patrol the streets—this sense of invulnerability? The famous old saying still applies: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. (And we still don’t know how many of these incidents occur each year; even though Congress enacted the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act 20 years ago, requiring the Justice Department to produce an annual report on “the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers,” the reports were never issued.)
Note how what Serpico says reflects the words of the deputy in Siler’s account: “I can shoot any dog that approaches me,” he said holding his gun, in a gloating manner. “All I have to say is that I feel they’re a threat.”
We should shiver at hearing those words come from any law enforcement official. They mean that neither we nor or our dogs are safe, as long as the cop thinks that they can get away with it. Violence against animals and humans is closely related in many studies. Consistently, people who commit violent crimes against humans are more likely to have killed or abused animals first.
If you think that what happened in Ferguson has nothing to do with the dogs who are regularly killed for no reason, you’re not paying attention. All an officer has to say is that they felt you or your child or your friend were a threat. People are shot as easily as dogs. Policing has become more reliant than ever on massive firepower to solve problems. SWAT teams are no longer emergency measures, but sent out to handle things as standard as a man contemplating suicide. Again, as Serpico says:
In the NYPD, it used to be you’d fire two shots and then you would assess the situation. You didn’t go off like a madman and empty your magazine and reload. Today it seems these police officers just empty their guns and automatic weapons without thinking, in acts of callousness or racism. They act like they’re in shooting galleries. Today’s uncontrolled firepower, combined with a lack of good training and adequate screening of police academy candidates, has led to a devastating drop in standards…. All a policeman has to say is that “the suspect turned toward me menacingly,” and he does not have to worry about prosecution.
Last Friday, I wrote a piece critiquing the organizational strategies of “Freeze, Don’t Shoot.” Much to my surprise, the comments blew up, but much of the discussion was a back-and-forth between two different factions of activists. One was accusing the Freeze-Don’t-Shoot groups of “cop-bashing.”
At this point, why should cop-bashing be a problem? Contrary to popular opinion, a badge and a uniform don’t make you a hero. Politicians and activists alike feel the need to preface any criticism by acknowledging the heroism of the “average cop.” I don’t see that heroism, frankly. I see far more examples of cowardice by police officers. Enough that I can safely say that I, like a lot of other Americans, don’t trust the police.
The problem is not just that there are a lot of officers who shoot dogs at the first growl, or who apply stun-guns to suspects while they’re handcuffed. The problem is that their fellow officers will gather around and protect them from the consequences of their actions. The greatest betrayal of the trust that we put in police is not by the officers who commit the violence; it’s by their colleagues who make sure that they get away with it.
For speaking out against police corruption, Frank Serpico got a medal and a bullet in the head. He’s still loathed by the modern NYPD, decades later. Unless corrupt and violent cops have to fear their comrades instead of the other way around, there’s no reason that we can trust police with the lives of our loved ones, whether canine or human.
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