In 2012 Austin police officer Thomas Griffin was investigating a domestic disturbance call and found himself at the wrong address. When he entered the property, he encountered Cisco, a blue heeler, in his owner’s yard. Moments later, Cisco was dead, and within days, a social media campaign gathered around the theme of “Justice for Cisco.” (It garnered over 100,000 “likes” on Facebook.) In the wake of the bad PR, APD amended its policy for officers who encounter pets in the line of duty, requiring a two-hour course on how to understand dog behavior and better handle aggressive-seeming dogs without shooting.
It’s unclear exactly how effective the training has proved to be—dogs are still shot by police in Austin—but the number of stories coming out of other parts of the state make Austin seem like a success story. In 2014 two hundred dogs were shot and killed by police in Texas. Perhaps the highest profile incident was caught on camera and involved a Cleburne police officer who called a pair of dogs over to him while his gun was drawn and as the animals approached with their tails up, shot them both dead.
But again that’s only one example. There is no shortage of sympathetic stories, and their prominence in the state conversation is leading to new proposed legislation. Three new bills are being filed by North Texas legislators. (One is inspired by yet another story involving an officer investigating the wrong address.) Each aims to mandate additional training on domestic animal encounters for all police in the state. As the Dallas Morning News reports:
Three North Texas representatives, Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, and Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, have filed bills requiring animal encounter training for peace officers after several controversial fatal canine shootings. Giddings’s and Collier’s bills are scheduled for public hearing in the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.
All three bills would require training on how to use nonlethal methods to handle animals. Geren’s bill is canine-specific and was drafted with the help of the Texas Humane Legislation Network and the owners of a dog that was fatally shot in 2012.
The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement would establish and require the training. The departments would absorb the cost.
This isn’t the first time legislation on the subject has been introduced—former state senator Wendy Davis proposed similar legislation in 2013—but the moment appears like it might be right in the wake of the Cleburne shooting and the other incidents that have occurred during past two years.
Facebook helps too. Social media is drawn to images of animals and stories designed to trigger outrage, and a police officer shooting an innocent dog hits both of those hot buttons. And there are many avenues on the Internet for animal lovers to follow up on the issue (see the r/puppycide subreddit).
Indeed, dog shootings garner a lot of attention on the Internet even when an officer isn’t involved. In Houston, for example, the January shooting of a dog named Diesel at the Bay Area Dog Park by a man who says he was trying to protect his own dog from the pit bull resulted in nearly 10,000 shares for a “Support for Diesel” page.
The man who shot Diesel was indicted this week, a relatively rare outcome in cases that involve someone shooting a dog who may have been acting aggressively, and the group celebrated. For their part, the Harris County Sheriff’s Department has expressed surprise at how much interest there was in the case, telling the Houston Chronicle:
Gilliland noted that the Harris County Sheriff’s online post about the dog shooting was retweeted over 200 times, far more than average for the department.
“This case has gotten more notoriety than many of our homicides,” he said.
Gilliland also said the sheriff’s department gets about 4,000 reports of animal aggression each year and is required to investigate each one.
In other words, there’s a cultural climate that makes stories about dogs that have been shot become notable in ways that, in the past, they may not have been. Whether that results in a bill making it through the Legislature remains to be seen, but at this point, we wouldn’t bet against it.