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Court: Police can shoot dog if it poses danger

A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court that dismissed a case against Battle Creek police officers for shooting dogs during a drug raid.
Gavel, scales of justice and law books -- stock image.

A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court that dismissed a case against Battle Creek police officers for shooting dogs during a drug raid.

In an opinion released Wednesday the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati agreed with the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids' dismissal of a suit against the City of Battle Creek, the Battle Creek Police Department and three police officers.

The case was brought by Mark and Cheryl Brown of Battle Creek after their two dogs were shot during a drug raid April 17, 2013.

During the raid two pit-bull terriers were shot and killed by officers. The Browns sued in federal court, arguing that killing the dogs was an unreasonable seizure of their property and a violation of their constitutional rights.

The dogs were shot as officers from the Emergency Response Team executed a search warrant, looking for drugs.

The officers said the two dogs were on the couch when officers entered the home and one dog was shot when it lunged at the officer. That dog went to the basement, blocking officers from searching. The first dog was killed. Officers then saw the second dog, which was barking, and it too was killed.

The suit was filed March 17, 2015, and in January attorneys representing the city and the officers sought to have the suit dismissed, arguing both qualified immunity and that the seizure of the dogs was reasonable. The lower court dismissed the case on March 29 and that decision was appealed.

In upholding the dismissal, the appeals court noted that many other federal courts have concluded "the use of deadly force against a household pet is reasonable only if the pet poses an (imminent) danger and the use of force is unavoidable."

The court concluded that "a jury could reasonably conclude that a 97-pound pit bull, barking and lunging at the officers as they breached the entryway, posed a threat to the officers' safety and it was necessary to shoot the dog in order for them to safely sweep the residence and insure there were no other gang members in the residence and that evidence was not being destroyed."

"It was a good ruling," Police Chief Jim Blocker said. "It pointed out some things we have to improve upon, but supported our operating concept that officers must act within reason."

Blocker said "officers have milliseconds to make a decision and it is a judgment call and based on too many variables. Ensuring officer safety and preventing the destruction of evidence must be protected."

Blocker was a member of the Emergency Response Team for 12 years and said "officers already know that dogs are not the guilty party. The animals are typically among the innocent."

He said officers today shoot fewer animals than in the past and have tried to develop alternatives like distraction using fire extinguishers or catch poles and if possible have a animal control officer present to assist. He said officers have looked for dog food as a way to distract dogs.

"In this case the animals were actively aggressive and an imminent threat to the officers. But shooting an animal in a home is not ideal. We could have subjects in other rooms and officers don't want to start throwing rounds into area where they aren't sure no one else is going to get hurt."

"Most of our officers are dog owners themselves," Blocker said. "And I want to know if we hurt a dog. They are going to have to explain themselves."

He said practices are being written into policy but that the department wants to ensure officer safety.

"We try to give officers a framework with their safety in mind because I am concerned about them going home uninjured."

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