Why Puppycide?

The other day, someone asked Radley Balko why cops seem to shoot so many dogs. It seems Radley has become something of an expert on this subject. He’s the go-to guy on what everybody now calls puppycide. And this was his response:

Because they can. No training, no consequences.

That seemed like a pretty good explanation to me, but New York criminal defense lawyer Scott Greenfield thinks it’s mostly wrong. For one thing, Greenfield thinks it’s not caused by a lack of training, but as a direct result of training:

Cops kill dogs because of the First Rule of Policing, make it home for dinner. If a dog is perceived as a potential threat to the officer’s safety, no matter how slight, the cop will shoot the dog dead. It’s not that he wanted to kill another dog, but that there was no way, none, that he was going to suffer a scratch, no less a vicious bite.

In other words, police officers are taught to value their own safety above all else, and thus their use of force escalates far too steeply, with the result that they kill a lot of dogs for no good reason. And it’s not just dogs, as Scott illustrates with a recent police shooting story out of Houston:

A schizophrenic double amputee waving a writing pen from his wheelchair was fatally shot early Saturday by a Houston police officer, authorities said.

“He was approaching them aggressively,” said Houston Police Department spokes­woman Jodi Silva. “He was attempting to stab them with what is now found to be a pen.”

This is a point that Scott has been hitting over and over. He thinks modern police culture and training have become focused on officer safety to the exclusion of all other goals, including the safety of the people they’re supposed to serve and protect. I was skeptical at first, but he’s convinced me that this is a real problem, and it’s exacerbated by the attitude of some cops that many of the crimes they deal with are NHI, “no humans involved.” Why take risks for inhuman scum?

Nevertheless, I don’t think this is inconsistent with Radley’s statement, properly interpreted. Radley’s point about training is that police officers apparently don’t receive much training in handling overexcited dogs, so they sometimes overreact and resort to the gun when less violent options are available. If we want, as Scott suggests, for officer safety to be less of an all-consuming priority in police departments, that will have to translate to a training program that teaches officers a better way to handle less-than-lethal threats, including dogs. Radley is pointing out that such training is rare.

I also suspect there’s another reason why cops shoot dogs when it’s not necessary, and Scott and Radley both seem to miss it (or else regard it as too obvious to mention). Here’s how Scott puts it:

Cops do not shoot dogs because they hate dogs. They don’t roam the town in search of dogs to shoot. They don’t take independent joy in killing the family pet. It may seem that way, but it’s not the case. So the answer isn’t “because they can,” being of a dog-killing sort and murdering them whenever the opportunity presents itself.

I’m not so sure that’s true. Not for every cop.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about psychopathy — also known as sociopathy and related to anti-social personality disorder — and despite what horror movies tell us, most psychopaths are not serial killers (although many serial killers are psychopaths). They are simply people who have never felt an ounce of sympathy for another human being. They are the abusive boyfriends, the charming con men, the corporate executives who lie to everyone while stealing millions.

According to psychologist Martha Stout, psychopaths tend to relate to other people through manipulation and dominance games, which they can win by making others lose. As children, they are nearly powerless and unable to win against other people, but animals are a different story, and cruelty to animals is one of the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder.

Psychologists estimate that at least 1% of the people in the U.S. are psychopaths, and it’s not hard to imagine that some of them have become police officers. It’s not hard to imagine that, contrary to Scott’s supposition above, these police officers do roam the town in search of dogs to shoot. They just do it under color of authority. Not only do they get to kill the stupid dog, but they get to watch the owner break down in tears, helpless against their power. For a psychopath, that’s a good day.

I’m not saying that every cop that shoots a dog is a psychopath, but I strongly suspect that some of them are. There may not be many of them, but psychopaths are devastating far beyond their numbers and likely account for more than their share of misery. There may be normal cops who mistakenly shoot friendly family pets in the back as they run away, but that’s far more likely to be a psychopath with a badge and gun.

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