Whether you’re counting human bodies, dogs, or both, one thing is depressingly clear if you read Internet news on a daily basis: There are far too many cops in this country who shoot first and ask questions later. If you’re a regular reader of Dogster, you’ll see that I’ve written a lot of articles about police shooting dogs for virtually no reason. In one of the most recent cases, a Chicago police officer came to the home of Nichole Echlin. When the family dog, Apollo, bared his teeth, the officer fired one shot, killing him instantly.
“He just said it had to be done. He walked up to me, told me that and walked away,” Echlin told ABC News.
The case of Apollo was unique in one sense: The cop was fired almost instantly. He killed the dog on Friday and was jobless on Monday. That’s remarkable, and I wish I could write that more often.
But the problem isn’t just that police officers are bad with dogs. During my morning browses for news stories, I invariably come across stories about police brutality, law enforcement officers beating or killing people for no reason at all. Most often, they are people of color, or poor, or both. Just this week, two EMTs in New York had to stop four cops from beating a patient who was handcuffed to a stretcher. Last month, police in Brooklyn dragged a 48-year-old woman out of her apartment who wore nothing but her underwear and a towel, making her pass out from an asthma attack. In June, a San Mateo sheriff’s deputy shot and killed Yanira Serrano Garcia, an 18-year-old with special needs, when her own family called 911 for medical assistance. In Ohio this week, a young man was gunned down by police when he picked up a toy gun while shopping in a WalMart. And of course, Eric Garner’s choking death at the hands of New York police officers has drawn national attention.
On and on and on. The depressing thing is that I can never chronicle the number of abuses, either of dogs or people, in any but the most superficial way. Earlier this week, Gawker printed a roundtable discussion on the subject called “It’s Time We Treat Police Brutality as a National Crisis.” Reason Magazine posted an op-ed with a similar title: “It’s Time For Cops to Stop Shooting Dogs.” Both are long overdue, and we also need to consider how police abuse of dogs and humans is connected.
Reporter Radley Balko, who has covered many dog-shooting incidents in his own blog, has also reported extensively on the increasing militarization of police departments, and how it leads to more violent responses. In an excerpt from his book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, published on Salon.com, Balko quotes former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper on the phenomenon of dog shootings:
But Stamper says that like many aspects of modern policing, dog shootings may have had a legitimate origin, but the practice has since become a symptom of the mind-set behind a militarized police culture. “Among other things, it really shows a lack of imagination. These guys think that the only solution to a dog that’s yapping or charging is shooting and killing it. That’s all they know. It goes with this notion that police officers have to control every situation, to control all the variables. That’s an awesome responsibility, and if you take it on, you’re caving to delusion. You no longer exercise discrimination or discretion. You have to control, and the way you control is with authority, power, and force. With a dog, the easiest way to take control is to simply kill it. I mean, especially if there are no consequences for doing so.”
For the past 40 years (at least) there has been an escalation in politicians, news media, and law-enforcement officials talking about law enforcement in terms of fighting a war, with police officers as the soldiers. That rhetoric is borne out in the equipment issued to police and the tactics they use on the street. Since SWAT teams were developed by the Los Angeles Police Department in the late 1960s, the squads have become a nationwide phenomenon, and deployment has gone from being a rarity for extreme circumstances to standard operating procedure. The War on Drugs and the War on Terror are part of our everyday vocabulary.
We have to ask ourselves, though, if cops are fighting a war, who is the enemy? Who are they fighting? All too often, it turns out to be us, the people that they are supposed to protect and serve. The enemy is anyone who isn’t a cop or who won’t instantly cooperate with them, whether that’s Apollo the dog or a middle-aged black woman in her underwear. As Stamper’s quote underscores, the consequences for such actions are minimal, and so it happens again and again.
I don’t want police to go out thinking that they’re at war. That puts every one of us in danger. I’m all for police officers having guns and electric-shock devices and clubs, but they should be last resorts, not the first. In the Gawker article, I like community organizer Ruby-Beth Buitekant’s idea for reforming our system of law enforcement best:
Can we imagine, for a minute, what it would look like if officers were trained in mediation? What if you called the police when you witnessed a violent fight; officers arrived ready to separate the parties, come to a nonviolent resolution, and make sure each person got home safely.
I might never see that, but if it were to happen, I believe a lot fewer people and animals would die.
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