Standing before a roomful of police recruits learning how to confront potentially dangerous dogs while working the beat, J. Scott Hill rattled off a list of dos and don’ts.
Do be calm and patient, he said.
Don’t pull your gun unless you believe someone’s life is in danger, he cautioned, showing a slide that highlights the difference between a dog that is simply excited and one ready to attack. The latter usually flashes an intense stare and shifts its weight to its front legs and wags its tail high in the air “like a flag.”
Meanwhile, a low-wagging tail typically suggests a frightened dog, said Hill, a former Alabama cop who trains police officers across the country on how to deal with man’s best friend. Knowing the difference, he told recruits, can help an officer avoid shooting a dog that never was a threat.
“You’re going to run across dogs that are at large, and you need to familiarize yourself with the different types of breeds there are and what their characteristics are,” he said Monday at the Minneapolis police training facility in the Webber-Camden neighborhood.
Hill’s lecture to 26 of the department’s newest recruits comes six weeks after a police officer shot and seriously wounded two dogs while responding to a suspected burglary on Minneapolis’ North Side.
Cmdr. Troy Schoenberger, who runs the department’s Leadership and Organizational Development Division, said that for now, all new hires will be required to participate in a four-hour training course for dealing with dogs. Eventually, the training will be required of all department officers, he said.
“This will, going forward, be a part of every recruit class,” Schoenberger said. “I’m a dog lover. I never want to see a dog or any animal get hurt.”
The department is reexamining its procedures for handling confrontations with dogs in light of the July 8 incident. The officer involved, Michael Mays, was captured on surveillance video hopping the backyard fence of a North Side home and firing at the two dogs, Ciroc and Rocko, both Staffordshire terriers, as they trotted toward him. The dogs didn’t appear to be charging the officer, as he later wrote in a police report. Security video belonging to the owner of the dogs that documented the episode attracted backlash from across the country and reignited debate about police violence.
Mays, who was later shown on a body camera video apologizing to the dog owner’s distraught daughter, has since transferred to another precinct. As of Monday, an online petition calling for his firing listed more than 120,000 signatures.
Educating officers about the different types of dogs has helped diminish the stigma associated with certain breeds, said Shannon Glenn, executive director of My Pit Bull is Family, a Minneapolis nonprofit that works to end housing and insurance discrimination toward dog owners.
“We really want to make sure that we can keep all of our families safe, keep our communities safe, when it comes to dogs,” said Glenn, who sat in on the training session.
While dog bites are common and should be taken seriously, Hill maintained that the threat of being mauled by a dog is overstated. No U.S. police officer has ever been killed by a dog, he said.
But each year, officers across the country kill thousands of dogs while performing their duties, Hill said. Many of those shootings are avoidable, he added.
In 2012, a U.S. Justice Department official speculated that as many as 10,000 dogs a year are shot by law enforcement, and deemed it “an epidemic.” That widely cited number, however, has been disputed by some experts.
Nearly one-third of fatal dog shootings occur during an arrest, according to data cited by Hill, with another 21 percent resulting from “ambush situations.” Fifteen percent of the shootings occurred during traffic stops or pursuits and 13 percent during tactical operations, he said.
“What does that say for law enforcement?” Hill asked.
Instead of reaching for their gun when confronted by a dog, Hill told recruits they should use their vehicles for cover or choose a less-lethal method to slow the dog — such as pulling their Tasers, which fire two probes that carry electrical pulses with enough force to take down a 3,000-pound bull.
Another slide from Monday’s training titled “How to Respond if Attacked” showed an officer kneeling on the hood of his squad car, swinging his baton at two apparently aggressive dogs.
“He didn’t just pull out his gun and shoot,” Hill said. “I’ve seen videos where he just let the pit bull chew the whole front bumper off the squad.”
Times have changed, Hill insists, and so has training for dealing with aggressive dogs.
“The mind-set from the early ’90s when I was a police officer was just ‘shoot it and we’ll deal with the consequences later,’ ” he said. “I want our police officers to be seen as serving the community and not as executioners.”