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Drug Reform Is About Animal Rights, Too

(Image: Dog panting via Shutterstock)

As the United States prepares to enter its 44th year waging a “war on drugs,” more and more Americans have come to understand the consequences of this failed policy. But while economists underline the inordinate financial costs and civil rights activists lament over disproportionate arrest rates, Fourth Amendment violations and the human cost of police militarization, there’s a group of drug war casualties that many often neglect: animals.

Shortly after 9 pm on March 9, an Ohio SWAT team executing a no-knock raid, busted down the front door of Susan Smith’s home and tossed inside a flashbang grenade. Susan’s husband, obeying police command, rushed to cage their pit bull, Lulu. But in the panicked frenzy, Lulu managed to break free from her cage and darted around the house, prompting one of the police officers to discharge his weapon. In a split second, Lulu had been shot. The wounded dog then limped out the broken-down door to the front yard, where neighbors say she was shot at least three more times. The reason for the raid? Police suspected that the Smith family had marijuana in the house.

Stories like Lulu’s are tragic to hear, but they highlight an important group of drug war casualties that is often neglected. Most people are so preoccupied by the use of excessive force and the human casualties claimed during drug searches, that they often overlook “man’s best friend,” who often just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Today, a dog is shot by law enforcement every 98 minutes, while the number of officers who have been killed by a dog over the past 50 years rests at zero.

Surely, a large factor in the excessive number of shootings is the inadequate training police have in dealing with canines – a pet nearly half of all US households have. But do dogs really pose that big of a threat to police? As Radley Balko pointed out in the Daily Beast back in 2009, “If dangerous dogs are so common, one would expect to find frequent reports of vicious attacks on meter readers, postal workers, firemen, and delivery workers.” Yet this has not been the case.

Balko continues:

But according to a spokesman from the United States Postal Service, serious dog attacks on mail carriers are vanishingly rare. Bites do happen, but postal workers are given training on how to distract dogs with toys, subdue them with voice commands, or, at worst, incapacitate them with mace. Mail carriers are shown a two-hour video and given instruction on how to recognize and read a dog’s body language, how to differentiate between aggressive charging and playful bounding, and how to tell a truly dangerous dog from a merely territorial one.

Yet such training is not widespread among police departments across the nation. While some departments have begun to train officers on how to deal with animal confrontations, most others do not, despite the training information and services readily available by organizations such as the ASPCA. Nonetheless, it is more imperative to focus on the root cause of these tragic incidents – incentivized drug raids and the warfare weaponry with which they are executed.

Although SWAT-style raids were initially intended as last-resort efforts in extreme circumstances, like hostage negotiations and active shooter situations, police have been increasingly granted more power in their use. Fueled by financial incentives for most drug seizures and funded with billions of dollars worth of paramilitary equipment from government agencies, the number of SWAT team deployments has risen 1,400 percent since 1981. Now, the majority of the 50,000 annual SWAT deployments are used to execute drug raids, many of which are conducted without police announcing their presence. Most troubling, a number of these no-knock raids have been executed at the wrong door.

In early June 2013, Iraq War veteran Adam Arroyo was at work when Buffalo Police mistakenly barged into his apartment searching for crack-cocaine. When he returned home later that night, he discovered bullet holes lacing his walls and blood covering his ransacked room, but he didn’t find his two-year-old pit bull, Cindy, anywhere. That’s because Cindy had been shot by police and taken away by the animal warden prior to his return home.

But the police department’s assault on drugs did not stop – or even diminish – with the death of Cindy; a similar incident occurred last summer. On an early July morning, Ronnie Raiser III had just woken up when Buffalo Police stormed inside his West Seneca apartment looking for ecstasy. There was no ecstasy, just a small stash of his roommate’s weed – decriminalized for private possession in New York state since 1977. But in the bedlam of their search, police shot and killed Raiser’s 15-month-old dog, Rocky.

Unfortunately, these incidents were not anomalous; the Buffalo Police Department has a proclivity for shooting dogs during raids. Reports obtained by WGRZ-TV under the Freedom of Information Act show that between January 2011 and September 2014, police in Buffalo shot 92 different dogs, killing 73, chiefly during raids. In comparison, the NYPD has only reported killing half as many dogs as the Buffalo Police Department, despite the fact that New York City’s population is 32 times that of Buffalo.

But the rate of dog shootings by police across the nation more alarmingly mirrors that of Buffalo. In Atlanta, police in the metro area shot nearly 100 dogs between 2010 and 2012. In Chicago, police shot approximately 90 dogs per year between 2008 and 2013. And in Southwest Florida, police shot at animals 111 times between 2009 and 2012, more than four times the amount they shot at humans.

There are plenty of other stories and statistics that highlight the violence and force used against dogs during police raids, and they all appear to have a central theme: a hunt for drugs. But despite the increased use of paramilitary raids, law enforcement only recovers drugs in 35 percent of SWAT-style drug raids.

Given the outrageous costs, casualties and highly unsuccessful rate of forced-entry drug raids, it seems clear that now is the time for police to reprioritize their duties. While a higher rate of canine interaction training among police is necessary for a reduction in violence against dogs, it will not resolve the problem entirely. Until drug seizures and drug arrest rates are de-incentivized, police will have no motive to tone down the drug enforcement that augments their income, and innocent animals will continue to be harmed.

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