In December 2006, 12-year-old K. Harris was in the backyard of her Hartford, Connecticut, home. She was spending some time with her best friend: her dog, Seven, a St. Bernard.
Then two police officers entered the property without a warrant. They were investigating what turned out to be an erroneous tip about guns in an abandoned car on the property (no car, no guns). The officers marched alongside the house to the backyard, and when Seven saw the officers, he took off after them.
The officers bolted to the front of the house, just as K., not knowing what was happening, rushed off around the other side of the house to cut off Seven’s path, afraid he would end up in the street. One officer ran clear off the property, but the other, for whatever reason, felt it was necessary to turn and shoot the dog—not just once, but several times.
K. heard the shots as she was running to the front of the house. When she got there, the officer stood over the immobilized and whimpering dog. K. pleaded with him not to shoot again. But after the fatal bullet was delivered, the police officer turned to K. and said simply, “I’m sorry, ma’am. Your dog is not going to make it.”
Surprisingly, this story is not an aberration. The death of Seven is just one example of an increasingly common phenomenon known as “puppycide”—the killing of pet dogs by law enforcement. The Department of Justice estimates that nearly 25 dogs are killed by law enforcement every day in the United States, which makes a total of 10,000 per year. The circumstances of each encounter are different, as are the breeds of dog, from Labrador retrievers to pit bulls to Chihuahuas. But the stories are woven with common threads—the rush to violence, abuse of power, fear, and carelessness. The treatment that the Harrises, an African-American family whose home was in the heavily policed Northeast neighborhood of Hartford, received at the hands of the officers is also a reflection of law enforcement’s behavior in communities of color across the country. Certainly, there are encounters involving genuinely dangerous dogs, but the scale of this phenomenon seems to speak to larger problems in law enforcement.
While the death of a dog can be heartbreaking and life-altering for many people—as it was for K. and the Harris family—it does not compare to the death of a person, to the very real and tragic deaths occurring at the hands of police all over this country. I did not make this video to equate the two acts. Rather, as Just a Dog illustrates, puppycide is yet another symptom of the much larger and devastating national malady of wanton police violence. It is a further tear in the fragile trust between civilians and the people we count on to keep us safe. And it is yet more evidence that our increasingly militarized police forces—tricked out in SWAT gear, tensed in a perpetual state of war—are so many decades and policies away from what policing ought to be. As Radley Balko, a leading voice on the militarization of the police, has noted:
In too much of policing today, officer safety has become the highest priority. It trumps the rights and safety of suspects. It trumps the rights and safety of bystanders. It’s so important, in fact, that an officer’s subjective fear of a minor wound from a dog bite is enough to justify using potentially lethal force…
But this video is about more than just police militarization and violence. At its core, Just a Dog is the story of a father’s love for his daughter, and the sense of responsibility engendered by that love. When Seven was killed, K. was devastated—depressed, suicidal, haunted by PTSD. Her father, Glen Harris, was her rock. Not only did he care for her physically and emotionally, but he set out on a bold legal course to unleash the power of the law. He sued the town and the police for infringement of their Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure (pets are considered chattel, or property, and there is no recourse beyond small-damages claims). Glen has put his savings on the line to pursue justice in the name of his daughter and his dog, in a time and place where justice is in short supply.
Police forces across the country, in municipalities large and small—from Texas to Ohio to Colorado—have begun to take steps to train officers in canine encounters. This is commendable and necessary; a trend that I hope continues to spread. If postal workers can handle daily confrontations with dogs without resorting to lethal force, surely police officers can learn alternative tactics as well. It’s also important to note that not all police officers are as quick to violence as others—certainly there are compassionate, responsible cops out there. But training and personal variations aside, as trends like puppycide, along with the surge in media attention to police killings of unarmed African Americans have demonstrated, we must look deeper into the tangled soul of American policing, to root out the ills that are plaguing it from within.