The Department of Justice estimates that American police officers shoot 10,000 pet dogs in the line of duty each year. It is impossible to ascertain a reliable number, however, because most law enforcement agencies do not maintain accurate records of animal killings. The tally may be substantially higher, and some suggest it could reach six figures.
Deferring to officers’ judgment when they reasonably fear for human safety is sound policy because they regularly must make split-second, life-or-death decisions in highly stressful situations; but many pet shootings occur when officers mistake the behavior of a friendly, curious dog for aggression. Further, some animals have been deliberately shot and killed under questionable circumstances, including through doors or while tied, running away, or hiding. Studies show that some officers shoot pets unnecessarily, recklessly, or in retaliation, and that subsequent civilian complaints are investigated inadequately. Moreover, not every animal that police officers shoot is a large dog that may be more likely to pose a genuine risk to human safety—or even a dog at all. Police claiming a threat to human safety have shot puppies, Chihuahuas, Miniature Dachshunds, and domestic cats, among other pets. In some tragic cases, bullets missed their nonhuman targets and injured or even killed human bystanders instead.
Pet shootings can seriously damage public relations for law enforcement agencies, especially during an era when the news seems to be saturated with stories concerning police using excessive force against unarmed civilians. The American Civil Liberties Union even classifies pet shootings as one symptom of the increased militarization of American police forces. Additionally, lawsuits brought by bereaved owners can cost agencies and taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. This Article explores these and other related issues, and presents simple solutions to help reduce the number of companion animal shootings by police in the United States.