OLEAN — The Olean Police Department’s shooting and killing of a loose dog has set off a public debate about whether officers were justified in their actions.
An Olean police officer fired a single round from a handgun at a male, red-nosed pit bull after trying to capture him for roughly two hours Friday morning just outside the East Henley Street residence the animal had escaped from.
A video of the incident, taken from across the street by a neighbor, has been shared more than 1,600 times on Facebook, leading some online to question whether officers could have used a less-lethal approach.
“They could have stunned that dog, they could have pepper sprayed that dog, but they went right to the weapon,” said Don Blocher of South Barry Street, who started filming on his cell phone roughly a minute before the fatal shot was fired.
Due to “an abundance of misinformation” and having received “tons” of emails and Facebook messages since the shooting, Olean Police Chief Jeff Rowley released a statement Monday that the department stands by its officers’ actions.
Rowley said the dog was aggressive with the two responding officers and personnel from the Cattaraugus County SPCA, who have a contract with the city for dog control services and contacted police for assistance at 10:10 a.m. Officers were able to confine the dog to the porch of 128 E. Henley St. but decided to fire once the dog stepped off the porch.
“If we don’t put the dog down and it runs down the street and bites somebody or mauls a little kid, then we’re going to be the bad guys. If we shoot the dog, then we’re the bad guys,” he told the Olean Times Herald. “So no matter what, it was a lose-lose situation for us.”
The dog was owned by John E. Holland, 55, who resides at 128 E. Henley St. and was arrested Thursday night on several felony charges following an alleged domestic incident. Rowley said Friday’s events and Holland’s arrest the night before were unrelated.
Kimberly Card said she and Holland, who she described as her ex-boyfriend, have co-owned the dog, named Dozer, for the last six years. Holland has been at Cattaraugus County Jail in Little Valley since his arrest, so Card, who lives down the street, walked to Walmart Friday morning to get dog food. She was just a few blocks away when she heard the gunshot.
While admitting not much can be seen on the video, Card, who is unsure how Dozer got loose, also questioned why her dog was shot.
“They could have tranquilized him instead of putting him to sleep,” Card said.
Officers were going to Taser the animal, but were unable to get into a position to do so safely and efficiently, according to Rowley. He added officers “did everything” they could to capture the dog alive, from contacting the Department of Environmental Conservation for a longer catch pole to going out and getting hamburger meat.
In addition to the dog being aggressive with officers Friday, Rowley said police have two prior incidents on record involving the dog — one in which he bit another dog, and another in which he was stabbed by its owner in self defense.
“This dog had a history of being aggressive and we could not just let it go,” he said. “It comes down to a matter of human injury and death, or the dog. We’re going to err on the side of humans.”
Card admitted Dozer had bitten five people, including she and her son, and that the dog was not up to date on shots. However, she said Dozer was mostly loveable, and she still feels officers could have found another way to alleviate the situation.
While there’s no concrete data on how many dogs are killed by police, it seems to be a fairly common occurrence across the nation. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that police kill 10,000 dog per year.
Rowley said Olean police shot and killed another dog earlier this spring near a local Country Fair gas station after receiving a report of two loose dogs who had eluded the SPCA for months. The other dog got away.
However, he said that Olean police normally shoot less than a dog per year, adding he can only remember “a handful” of other instances over his 28 years with the department.
Officers do occasionally shoot injured deer or rabid raccoons, but “not very often,” he added.
Some dog owners have brought lawsuits against police for killing their pets, and have seen mixed results.
A Maryland jury last year awarded $1.26 million to a family whose dog was shot and killed by the Anne Arundel County Police Department in 2014, while a federal appeals court in 2016 sided with the Battle Creek (Mich.) Police Department, whose officers fatally shot two dogs during a drug raid.
Card she said it’s possible Holland will take legal action for his dog being killed.
Rowley said many of the messages police have received in recent days were “very nasty, very derogatory, and some of them were just flat out ridiculous.”
“If we had (let the dog go) and somebody got injured, an even greater amount of people would be in an uproar that we failed to do our job,” he said. “... No matter what I say there’s going to be a certain percentage of the public who is going to believe what they want to believe.”
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)