Over the past few days, a video that was taken by a Cleburne police officer’s body camera went viral. To say that it’s disturbing is an understatement—we’d strongly advise against watching it. It involves the officer in question walking through what appears to be a residential neighborhood and approaching two dogs that are some distance away, near a drainage ditch. The officer attempts to summon the dogs by clicking his tongue against his teeth (you know, with “here, boy!” kissy noises) and then, as the dogs look up at him, tails wagging, he fires three times before we can see what happens: One of the dogs lies on the ground, while the other runs away from him. As the second dog backs away, the officer pursues it, and then both the dog and the officer stop. The officer raises his gun again, his radio makes a noise, and the video ends.
The video has been all over Facebook for fairly obvious reasons. People are outraged by a police officer shooting a dog that seems to be minding its own business, no threat to anyone, and even happy. The fact that the officer attempts to get the dogs to come closer to him suggests, at a bare minimum, that he did not seem to feel as though these dogs posed an imminent threat to his safety. And there’s something inherently disturbing about someone making friendly noises at a happy-seeming dog in order to shoot it—the moment in the video when the officer raises his gun feels like something out of a horror movie, because those noises, on a bright day, with tail-wagging dogs surrounded by green grass, don’t seem like they should be accompanied by someone pointing a gun at the animals.
The officer and the Cleburne Police Department, perhaps predictably, dispute that characterization of the encounter. According to MyFoxDFW.com, the officer’s police report—filed at the time of the incident, which occurred a few months before the video went public—offers a different account.
In a police report, the officer says he made kissing noises, trying to calm Maximus.
He says in the report, “I raised my duty weapon to the ready position – pointed at the growling dog’s head. As soon as I lifted my pistol, the dog began coming up the hill, continuing to growl and display its teeth…I fired three shots at it.”
“They don’t match up,” said Henderson. “’Cause whenever we see the video, it’s heartbreaking. What I see is him kissing him over to kill him.”
The officer’s arm obscures some of the dog’s reactions in the video, but before he raises his gun to shoot, the dog appears still, save for his wagging tail. We can’t tell if the dog was growling, or if, after the officer raised his weapon, it did bare its teeth and charge up the hill toward him.
The Cleburne Police Department issued a statement after the video went viral:
“The City is obviously concerned about the video showing an officer shooting a dog. As is often the case, the short video does not tell the whole story. The officer was responding to a 911 call for assistance. Three dogs had pinned some residents in a vehicle. One dog was secured without incident before the shooting. The officer was attempting to secure the other dogs until animal control arrived when one dog became aggressive.
The City of Cleburne takes the safety of our residents, their pets, and our officers seriously. This incident is currently under review. The review will include interviews with witnesses and review of department policies. Once the review is concluded, any actions that may be warranted will be handled swiftly and appropriately.
The Cleburne Police Department is seeking the public’s help if anyone observed this incident by contacting the Professional Standards Unit at 817.556.8894.”
There’s no real point in disputing the officer’s report, since we can’t see exactly what happens once his gun is raised. For the most part, the decision of whether you believe it or not rests with how much you trust the police generally: If you’re not inclined to trust the police, you probably see the officer shooting a dog for no reason. If you tend to assume that the police are justified in their actions, or you’re suspicious of pit bulls, then you probably agree that there’s more to the story that you can’t see in the video. But ultimately, trying to determine the truth of whether the dog began running toward the officer in Cleburne after he pointed his weapon is only part of the issue at hand here.
Officer-involved shootings have received a lot of attention in the past few months (Mike Brown’s, in Ferguson, is obviously the most famous example on the world stage), and anyone who’s seen this video on Facebook has probably seen comments from someone arguing that it’s a waste of time to get so upset about dogs when police officers shoot people, too.
It’s a reasonable point, but there’s a lot to learn from incidents—which happen frequently—that involve police shooting dogs. Dogs don’t have malice, and they’re not guilty of crimes; at worst, they’re only guilty of acting on instinct. The officer may have felt threatened, but there aren’t going to be pictures on social media of the dog posing with guns or drugs. It’s easier to instinctively see a dog as innocent than a person who looks like the actors who play drug dealers on television, and that’s valuable in discussing how police officers react in situations where they fire their weapons without an obvious, imminent threat.
Even if you accept the Cleburne officer’s recollection of the encounter as fully accurate, and the dog did become aggressive after he pointed his gun at it, the fact that he pulled his gun on a dog that was wagging its tail suggests a lapse in judgment, and it’s worth recognizing that police officers are people who are subject to the same lapses in judgment that the rest of us make. It’s possible that the officer in question didn’t like dogs, or was scared of them—even brave, strong men can be scared of dogs—and it’s worth considering that a police officer is going to have some biases of his own as he enters a situation, and that those biases will impact his decisions. After Ferguson, one of the most common themes in the discussion was the militarization of police, and the idea that, if police have weapons disproportionate to the situation, they might be inclined to use them. When you look at an encounter with a dog like the one that happened in Cleburne, it’s an opportunity to see that play out in miniature: police officers have guns, and they’re known to shoot strange dogs that they encounter. Mail carriers, pizza delivery drivers, and meter readers don’t have guns, and they don’t shoot the strange dogs they run into.
None of that is a blanket conndemnation of the officer, or of police in general, obviously. They’re just things to consider about how police are just people who have jobs that can change—or end—lives based on decisions that aren’t always going to be perfect. And it’s worth keeping in mind that, if a police officer can make the poor choice to point his gun at a seemingly-friendly dog, police officers are capable of making other poor choices, too.