Should a dog shot by a Pittsburgh Police officer be considered a weapon because the officer felt threatened? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Should a dog shot by a Pittsburgh Police officer be considered a weapon because the officer felt threatened? 

“The only danger that was caused is when officer Goetz fired his gun and shot his partner in the foot.”

Pit bull King is on the mend after being shot by police officers on March 10. - CP PHOTO BY JOHN COLOMBO
  • CP photo by John Colombo
  • Pit bull King is on the mend after being shot by police officers on March 10.

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. 

“They’re going to have to show that he had the intent to use the dog as a weapon, and we will bring witness after witness, from the vet, to neighbors, to family members, to talk about the nature of this dog,” says Grote. “If they get to a jury trial, then that jury is going to hear ample testimony about how loving and friendly this dog is, and it will become abundantly clear that no one would’ve thought to use this dog as a weapon.”

This isn’t the first time someone has been charged with reckless endangerment and aggravated assault for allegedly using a dog as a weapon. In Philadelphia in 2009, Tyree May was convicted of both charges. 

“In that case, the man was barricaded in a room behind a dog tied to a radiator, and when the police tried to get him he would throw the dog at the police, he would sic the dog on the police, and the dog bit the police,” says Grote. “That is an example of a man using a dog as a weapon.” 

But that incident is far different from what occurred on Tipton Street in Hazelwood in March, says Grote. 

Pit bull King with his owners during a press conference at the Allegheny County Courthouse on Wed., June 7. - CP PHOTO BY JOHN COLOMBO
  • CP photo by John Colombo
  • Pit bull King with his owners during a press conference at the Allegheny County Courthouse on Wed., June 7.

“Here you have none of those [signs] of intent to use the dog as a weapon. There’s no siccing of the dog; there were no commands given; the dog did not bite anybody,” says Grote. “It’s insufficient to say there was the potential for danger or that the police officers thought they were in danger. The only danger that was caused is when officer Goetz fired his gun and shot his partner in the foot.”

McKamey agrees. She says the family’s 4-and-a-half-year-old pit bull has never attacked anyone.

“Any dog is going to bark if there’s something going on outside of its house, but if you pet King and give him a pat on the head he’s like, ‘Fine, you can rob us now,’” McKamey says. “He’s a loving dog.”

McKamey isn’t just speaking out on behalf of her son. She has been charged with hindering apprehension as a result of the incident, because after she arrived at the scene, she and her son attempted to leave to look for King.

Now the family is asking for the charges against them to be dropped and for the city to pay King’s medical bills. The family paid approximately $2,500 to remove the bullet.

“It’s crazy to me how police officers’ dogs are considered human, but somebody’s pet isn’t,” says McKamey. “We feel the same way when our dogs are hurt.”

Grote says the family is also considering filing a lawsuit against the city for what they see as unfair treatment in this case. And they wouldn’t be the first family to win such a lawsuit.

Last month, a jury awarded $1.26 million to a family whose dog, Vern, was shot and killed by a Maryland police officer in February 2014. According to the law firm representing the family, during the trial, the officer admitted that the dog did not bite or injure him. 

“The verdict sends a strong message to the police about community expectations,” said the family’s attorney, Cary Hansel, in a statement. “The duty to serve and protect extends to our animal family members as well. Shooting Vern was senseless, unnecessary and unconstitutional.”

In an effort to curb these kinds of incidents, animal advocates are calling for better training for police officers. 

“There are millions and millions of households that have a pet dog,” says Balkin, of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “So it behooves officers when they go out to any residence to be prepared for a pet dog being present at the scene. It behooves police officers to understand the bond between humans and their pets and how devastating it can be for them to seriously harm or kill a pet animal.” 

Balkin highlights training in Colorado, as part of the Dog Protection Act, as a model. The training there helps officers interpret dog behavior and postures. It also teaches them what tools to use to help them control a dog without using lethal force, even in cases where the dog is being aggressive. 

“It teaches them to look at their ears, their eyes, how they might stand or crouch, whether or not they bare their teeth and what does that mean. Does it necessarily mean they’re going to bite you, or is it just a showing of them being alert or anxious or fear,” says Balkin. “And how should you stand? Should you stand face on or let them see your profile? Should you talk loud or soft? Should you run? Should you crouch down? What kind of tone of voice might calm them?”

And this training doesn’t just benefit dogs and their families. Balkin says it can also prevent police officers from being harmed.

“They also need to know when the use of force is appropriate,” says Balkin. “And part of the training addresses that to say you shouldn’t compromise your safety or the safety of others, but only use the force that’s necessary.”



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