On March 10, Pittsburgh police officers were conducting a drug investigation in the 200 block of Tipton Street, in Hazelwood, when they approached Marlon Jackson, who was standing on his front porch a few feet away from the officers.
Police say they approached Jackson and asked him to remove his hands from his pockets. But according to a criminal complaint written by officer Robert Berberich, who was at the scene, Jackson was hostile and responded, “Fuck you, this is my house, I don’t have to do shit.”
Two other officers, Scott Brown and Christopher Goetz, then walked onto the porch. Berberich writes that Jackson opened the front door of the home to “intentionally” release his pit-bull dog, King.
“The dog then lunged at Officer Brown’s neck and face, possibly in an attempt to bite him, while cornering him into the area near the doorway,” Berberich writes. And “[i]n fear for Officer Brown’s safety, Goetz fired two rounds from his deputy pistol at the dog.”
The first shot missed the target, instead hitting Brown, the very officer police say Goetz was trying to protect. The second shot hit King, who then ran away.
Jackson’s account of the incident differs. He says he opened the door to enter the house to avoid a confrontation with the police. Now he faces charges of assault and endangerment on the basis that he used his dog as a weapon.
(Jackson’s cousin, Devon Paige, has been charged with tampering with evidence and possession of marijuana as a result of the March 10 incident. Paige was being taken into custody in front of Jackson’s home that day when police first approached Jackson. Marijuana has been decriminalized in the city of Pittsburgh.)
“It was a traumatizing experience; a gun and Tasers were drawn on me and my dog; my dog was shot; I could’ve been killed,” Jackson says.
Jackson’s June 7 preliminary hearing was postponed because officer Brown, who was shot in the foot during the March incident and has not yet returned to duty, did not appear for court. Magisterial District Court Judge James Hanley granted a postponement until Aug. 10.
It’s a case of he-said-they-said, and the outcome of this case could hinge on the credibility of the witnesses on either side. A search of Allegheny County’s criminal records indicates that Jackson’s only prior involvement with law enforcement was for violating the city’s open-container law in 2012. But Goetz, the officer who fired his weapon, has been accused of using excessive force before. In 2014, he was sued for using a Taser during an arrest. The civil lawsuit was later dismissed.
Pittsburgh Police officials did not return calls seeking comment.
Either way, activists and lawyers say, the number of dogs shot by police officers has reached epidemic proportions. They emphasize that no officer has ever been killed by a dog during the course of performing his or her duties (according to data from National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Fund). And in order to protect man’s best friend, they’re calling for mandatory training for officers nationwide.
“Some people have described it as an epidemic,” says Diane Balkin, an attorney with the criminal-justice program at the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “And it has been underreported for decades because of the position animals are [in] within our society and [because] it is believed that police power allows for certain types of use of force on a daily basis.”
There are several discrepancies about the March incident, but Jackson’s attorney Bret Grote and his mother, Saundra Cole McKamey, say one is especially troubling. They maintain that the dog, King, was running away and already across the street when officer Goetz fired the second shot. And they say the officers filed charges against Jackson to cover this up.
“It’s a classic case of cover charges to cover their own misdeeds in this case,” says Grote. “For them to throw around felony charges like it’s a game and threaten people with prison just to save face is disgraceful.”
Among the charges against Jackson are three counts of recklessly endangering another person, one count of aggravated assault, and one count of cruelty to animals. According to the criminal complaint, the aggravated-assault charge is on the basis that Jackson attempted to cause “bodily injury” to officer Brown.