The relationship between law enforcement and the American people may be the most strained it has ever been. Between the War on Drugs claiming generations of nonviolent Americans as prisoners and the social media era exposing actions taken by uniformed officers that have likely been going on for many decades, it’s difficult for America’s younger generations to imagine a time when those entrusted with protecting and serving us have been trusted less.
Even though cannabis itself poses no deadly threat to its users, the prohibition of the plant has left a trail of destruction in its path for over a half-century. Today, while many adults across the country can legally enjoy or grow marijuana recreationally, others are being raided and having guns pointed at them while officers of the law confiscate their belongings — or worse.
The national spotlight has been fixed on the issue of lethal force by police officers on human suspects, and rightly so, but little attention is given to the alarming number of fatal encounters involving what millions of Americans define as legitimate members of the family: our dogs.
In 2016, the Department of Justice estimated that roughly 25 dogs were killed by police officers every day, which equates to more than 9,000 annually. However, not all departments are as forthcoming as others with data relating to dog shootings.
While not every case where a dog is shot and killed by police is unjustified, the incredibly high number of instances reflects a larger issue — namely the lack of foresight and restraint shown by officers who encounter animals at a large percentage of homes they visit.
Warning: The following videos contain footage that viewers may find disturbing.
When a Marijuana Raid Goes Horribly Wrong
A heart-wrenching story out of Detroit was recently sent to me about a family who lost three dogs over what amounted to an inconsequential marijuana raid at their home. After speaking to the attorney representing them in their Civil Rights case against the state, I realized this unfortunate tragedy was just the tip of the iceberg.
With an increased focus on stamping out home marijuana grow operations in recent decades, raids have only become more commonplace — to the tune of 80,000 annually. A study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that over 60 percent of the SWAT raids were initiated to conduct searches for drugs. The same ACLU study also discovered that the drugs police were searching for on these raids are not found as often as 65 percent of the time.
Though SWAT teams were originally created to defuse “hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios” where officers face an increased risk of harm, those types of cases represent just 7 percent of SWAT raids today. Of the raids that have caused at least one human fatality since 2010, 70 percent were conducted to search for drugs.
When a law enforcement agency performs a raid on what they believe to be a marijuana cultivation site, they have an obligation to conduct the search and subsequent arrests in the safest manner possible without risking unnecessary harm to innocent bystanders or property. In the National Tactical Officers Association’s SWAT Standards For Law Enforcement Agencies manual, the first sentence of the SWAT Purpose section reads, “The primary purpose of SWAT is to provide a systematic approach to saving lives in accordance with the priorities of life and the specific standards set forth herein, in concert with the totality of circumstances presented.”
But because tensions are high in these situations and variables are anything but predictable, sometimes tragedies occur.
We spoke to a former law enforcement officer of 14 years about his experience interacting with dogs on SWAT raids to find out how these deadly incidents may occur and how they could possibly be avoided. For his own protection and safety, our source asked to remain anonymous.
I was on the SWAT team for about 7 years, and we dealt with dogs all the time. It’s problematic, and not as easy to deal with as the public thinks. The city I worked in was mostly pitbull issues, and unfortunately, it’s not the dogs, it was the owners. We were dealing with mostly gang members, who trained the dogs to go after anyone who came onto the property, especially the police.
What the public doesn’t get to see is someone releasing a dog specifically to attack the police. It happened to me at least ten times in my 14 years on the job. It’s not that police are quick to shoot the dogs, but they don’t get the correct training on how to deal with them or don’t have any less lethal options available at the time. These situations happen very quickly, trust me.
At one point, we had our county Animal Control come out to give us a training class on dealing with aggressive dogs. I learned a lot from that. Going forward, the best tool that we used while serving search warrants was a fire extinguisher. It is a non lethal option and works every single time on any breed.
I was the breacher on the team (the guy that gets the team into the house through the door or windows), so I would bring the fire extinguisher with me to the house and drop it by the front door where it was accessible if I needed it. It is also a good idea to have the guys covering the back of the house also carry a fire extinguisher. When you spray a dog with it, they get scared from the powder and noise and run away. I have never seen a dog not run from getting sprayed. It does not hurt them at all and instantly solves the problem at hand.
Now, on patrol, it’s a little more difficult. You don’t have the luxury of 15 guys covering you with guns as you approach a house with a fire extinguisher in your hands like we did on a SWAT team.
If you go to a patrol call, like an alarm activation at a business or residence, and there seems to be an aggressive dog in the yard, it is going to be a judgement call. You can do your best to check the business or home to see if it’s secure without entering the yard, but sometimes it is unavoidable. In these cases, have one officer cover the building or yard and have the other officer bring up a fire extinguisher from one of the police cars. Most agencies have them in the trunk of the patrol vehicles, or they should.
There really isn’t an easy answer to this debate. Every situation a police officer deals with is different, and sometimes the only option you have to protect yourself and others from great bodily injury is your firearm. As unfortunate as that is, it is just the reality. Education is really key. Police departments should have their local Animal Control officers come out and give some training — the information is incredibly valuable.
I spoke with Christopher Olson, a Michigan-based attorney who has become one of the leading crusaders against police departments across the nation who gun down family dogs. The case we initially began speaking about involved three family dogs that police shot during a raid in search of a marijuana grow. After watching the property extensively for some time and being fully aware of the presence of the dogs, the Detroit PD raided the home.
This case is particularly egregious because the cops called animal control but got impatient. The sergeant, Anthony O’Rourke, ordered the other officers to shoot these dogs from behind a locked fence.
The cops knew going into the raid that the plaintiffs were registered medical marijuana growers and were at least attempting to follow the rules. The number of plants they were cultivating were under the limit, the police just had an issue with them being out in the open air.
Detroit PD has what I believe to be a policy in practice of shooting every dog that they see on these marijuana raids. I have several of these cases and it seems that Detroit is one of the worst places in America when it comes to marijuana raids that lead to the killing of family pets.
It is my firm belief after I’ve had several cases that these police officers are going to kill these dogs if they can’t shoe them away. If a dog sees a stranger kick in the door, they’re going to bark — and that’s when they get shot.
This is not a case about property, we are addressing a violation of the Constitution and the damages that resulted from it. The damages are for when a state actor comes in your house under the color of state law and shoots your family dog, and that’s a kind of pain anyone can understand — especially when it wasn’t necessary.
Most of my cases are against the city of Detroit.
Another case I discussed with Olson involved Detroit PD shooting three dogs while executing a search warrant in 2016.
According to a federal civil rights suit the family of the dogs filed, the police acted as a “death squad,” gunning down all three dogs even though they were causing the officers no harm. The owner, Nikita Smith, observed the officers coming and yelled for them to wait while she put away her three dogs. She put one in the bathroom and two in the basement. When she returned upstairs from hiding the dogs away, the police had already burst into the home with guns pointed directly at her. One of the dogs made its way back upstairs from the basement and sat next to Smith’s feet. Police shot the dog before heading into the basement and shooting another one, who was pregnant and backed into the corner when she was found. Before leaving, officers went to the bathroom that contained the last of the three family dogs. An officer opened the door slightly to observe the dog before closing it and asking his partners, according to the lawsuit, “Should we do that one, too?” They did — through the closed bathroom door.
Smith was subsequently arrested for marijuana possession after witnessing her dogs being gunned down, though the charges were dismissed later when the officers were a no-show at her trial.
One of the Detroit PD officers who raided Smith’s residence had killed 39 dogs on the job prior to that day, according to unredacted police reports provided by Olson. This officer’s canine kill count is far from the highest in the Detroit Police Department.
For a long time, many lawyers wouldn’t take cases against police departments in the event of a killed dog because many are dismissed or didn’t provide enough of a return in damages. Olson discovered that the United States Constitution does, in fact, have language that spells out a means of return for these families who lost their dog violently and unnecessarily.
I didn’t always do this kind of work. A friend of mine asked me if I could help someone they knew whose dog was shot by police officers about three or four years ago. My initial reaction was that I probably could not take the case because my legal fees would be more than I could recover in damages, as the sentimental value of a family dog is far higher than its actual cost. One of the peculiarities of this case is that Michigan is one of the states that has medical marijuana but not recreational. The medical marijuana in Michigan is part of the state’s constitution, which among other things provides a defense to criminal prosecution for growers or dispensaries in the state.
But I told them I would take a look, and what I found was some very powerful law, in which the Constitution of the United States gave us a different avenue of recovery that wasn’t limited to the cash value of the dog.
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution limits what property can be seized by the government. Shooting a dog has been considered under federal law to be a seizure, meaning a cop cannot just come into your home and murder your pet unless he has constitutional power to do so. The Civil Right Act provides every American with a right of action to sue for damages when there are constitutional violations. The Civil Rights Act provides for compensatory damages, which includes not only the value of what has been seized but also mental pain and anguish from the seizure. Now, in the case of law enforcement shooting and killing your family dog, that constitutional right to damages is where the value is considering this is one of the worst things that can happen to you outside of a human family member being killed by a police officer. The Civil Rights Act also provides for punitive damages to discourage other wrongdoers from committing the same constitutional violations, as well as providing for the recovery of attorney fees in the event that the case is won.
There have been a number of landmark cases in recent years that have solidified a family’s right to reclaim damages against the City or State responsible for killing their pet, though many cases still get dismissed without justice for the family.
The seminole case is called Hell’s Angels vs City of San Jose. The police from the city of San Jose were investigating a murder, which they believed was perpetrated by a Hell’s Angel member in San Jose. They surveilled two Hell’s Angels member’s home for about a week, saw they had some dogs, and prepared a raid. These were not little poodles, they were big dogs. The officers planned to initially push the dogs away with their shotguns, and if that didn’t work, they’d shoot the dogs. That is exactly what they did. The Hells Angels then sued the police.
The police officers have what is called qualified immunity for things that they do while they are on the job. What the court decided in that case was there was no qualified community. There has to be more of a plan to deal with the dogs aside from killing them if you knew the dogs were in the building already. After losing the case, the city appealed to the 9th circuit court of appeals, the second highest court in the land, where a judge affirmed what the trial court ruled. The appeals court stated that there is no qualified immunity if the officers knew the dogs would be present and only devised a plan to kill them — it’s unreasonable.
Other circuit courts have followed suit, and now the law of the land is that with a seizure like this, it is unreasonable if it is more intrusive than necessary. But if police officers feel they are in imminent danger of harm, they can can kill a dog reasonably and be within the bounds of the 4th Amendment.
Because of this, what police do in every single case I’ve ever had in this area, is they say the “vicious” dog was “charging” at me and going to eat me so I killed it. If there isn’t a witness to refute that story, I won’t even take the case because it will ultimately get dismissed.
Unfortunately for the family of the dog, you’re going to lose if you don’t have someone to refute the cop’s story. I end up not taking way more than half of the cases I receive. I have another case against the City of Detroit right now where the police had a search warrant for weed and nobody was home, but the family tethered their dog to the landing of the basement stairway. The cops found the dog in the basement, said they were fearful for their life, and shot it while the family wasn’t home.
That’s the one case where I don’t have a witness who is saying the dog wasn’t attacking the police. But that’s circumstantial evidence — which on TV is not evidence, but in the standard jury instructions of every court in the land it is evidence, and it’s good evidence.
Santa Clara County was ordered to pay the Hell’s Angels members nearly one million dollars in damages after losing the appeal, and other cities are footing the bill for their police force’s questionable dog shootings, too. Commerce City, Colorado was ordered to pay a family over $260,000 in damages after police wrongly killed a family dog. The city of Hartford, Connecticut paid another family $200,000 after killing their Saint Bernard. Olson has secured significant damages for a number of Detroit-area families, including $100,000 for Daryl Lyndsey, whose dog was murdered by Detroit PD while tethered by a chain. The officer who shot the dog claimed it was charging him and going to bite, but the leashed dog had nothing to do with the incident according to another officer who witnessed the shooting.
Not all families who lose their pet to police violence are able to recoup damages from the state, however. Nikita Smith’s Civil Rights case was dismissed in Eastern Michigan District Court after the judge ruled that her three dogs could lawfully be killed by police as she did not have current up-to-date licenses for the animals and therefore they could not be considered her “property,” undermining Smith’s entire argument.
After the District Court sided with the City of Detroit, Smith filed an appeal the following day with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the second highest court in the land. Marijuana.com followed up with Christopher Olson to gain insight into how he and his client would proceed.
In that Sixth Circuit Court, they will either affirm or reverse the recent decision in my client’s case. It is one which has gotten a lot of attention, and we’re going to fight until the end for a reversal. It isn’t the law, it never was the law, and it should not be the law, because if it is, it means that police officers, at least within the Sixth Circuit, can shoot virtually any dog with no limit if they happen to discover after the fact that the dog was unlicensed. We don’t think that’s what the United States Constitution provides, and we’re not alone. At least three other entities have expressed great interest in the outcome of this case: the ACLU, the State Bar of Michigan, and the Michigan State University Law School. When all’s said and done, we’re going to make some law out of this case — the only question is whether it will be good law or bad law. We expect to find that out roughly nine months from now, around next June.
Marijuana.com: Were you surprised by the Eastern District of Michigan Court’s decision?
I was very surprised, I didn’t even think it was going to be a close call. Nikita Smith was in disbelief. If we win our appeal in the Sixth Circuit Court, we’ll go right back to the Eastern District for a trial. If we do not, we’ll have to consider taking our case to the United States Supreme Court. There are a lot of other cases just like this around the country, so the appeal is very important. Sometimes I have to question if a case is a good candidate for appeal, but I really couldn’t pick a better one. Let’s remember that the police shot Nikita Smith’s dog through a closed bathroom door and admitted it. Just because an American citizen may not have the economic means to obtain up-to-date licensing paperwork for their dog does not mean that law enforcement can shoot it without repercussion.”
Marijuana.com: How will the ultimate decision in this appeal affect other cases you’re working on?
If we do not win this appeal, this case could represent a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for cities that will now argue that dogs they killed were unlicensed, whether it was reasonable or not. It could set a dangerous precedent, and some judges will buy it.
Holding individuals and organizations accountable for acts like these dog shootings begins with maintaining accurate data. Too many departments around the country do not report animal shootings by officers consistently — if they even report them at all. If we know the true scope of the problem, we can then begin to fix it.