When Chetwynd RCMP officers were called to a rural property in May 2018, they found two dogs calmly lying in an enclosure with three dead goats. The woman who had called police hadn’t seen the attack on her family’s pet goats and didn’t know the dogs, but she was afraid of what they might do if they got out of the pen.
The two officers were faced with conflicting information. The RCMP supervisor they called for direction told them to shoot the dogs. A conservation officer said they had no legal authority to do so and advised them to call animal control.
After killing the dogs, the officers disposed of Star, a nine-year-old female rottweiler, and Cheveyo, a six-year-old male husky, in a local dump where their decomposing bodies were later found by their heartbroken owners, Michael and Theresa Kozak.
“The whole mindset of ‘they’re just animals’ has to end,” said Vancouver lawyer Rebeka Breder, who filed a lawsuit in May 2020 in B.C. Supreme Court on behalf of the Kozaks. She wants to see police better trained to deal with animals.
In its May 2021 response to the lawsuit, the RCMP said officers felt unsafe entering the enclosure to capture the dogs. In B.C., police are authorized under the Police Act and Livestock Act to use deadly force on an animal for public safety or for humanitarian reasons if an animal is suffering.
Staff Sgt. Steve Hiscoe says police training related to animals is not a high priority. “I think we have many more training issues that we need to deal with,” said Hiscoe, who is the RCMP’s top use-of-force trainer in B.C.
While the Kozak lawsuit has yet to go to court, the case highlights emerging issues around police use of deadly force on animals and the appropriateness of police responses to growing numbers of animal-human encounters.
The deadly force used against the dogs in Chetwynd was not an isolated event.
Gunshots fired by municipal police and RCMP in encounters with animals account for most shootings by police in B.C., yet in an era of evidence-based policing, little is known about these cases.
Those concerned with animal welfare and policing reform say the current state of policing is out of step with the public’s concern for animals — and raises questions about public safety and police accountability.
Data gaps and what’s at stake
When a police officer pulls the trigger in B.C., three out of four times it’s to shoot an animal.
In 803 of the 1,049 firearm incidents reported by police to the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety from 2007 to 2019, police discharged firearms at domestic and wild animals, including dogs, bears, cougars, raccoons, deer, coyotes and sea otters.
Animal shootings are the most common form of state-sanctioned use of lethal force, but the B.C. agency that tracks and analyzes police use of force asks few questions about these cases. This, and incomplete data from police, suggests that these incidents are under-reported.
Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, Canada’s only animal law organization, questions the lack of transparency.
“It’s a matter of public interest,” she said, citing the outrage following shooting incidents, including a recent incident in Windsor, Ont., where police entered a backyard without notice and shot the family dog.
Bryce Casavant, a former B.C. conservation officer turned academic, says when police killing of animals goes unchecked, it’s not just animal welfare at stake.
In a 2017 study, Casavant found 20 per cent of B.C. residents will, at some point, will witness the exercise of lethal force on a domestic or wild animal by either RCMP or conservation officers.
“And when that takes place,” he said, “there is an immediate decline in public trust in the agency overall.”
This is especially the case, he found, when several shots are fired to kill an animal or when officers respond to calls by showing up and killing animals. As a result, people may hesitate to call police when animals are present.
In B.C., police are only required to report when force is used against a person. But animal shootings — as incidents involving police discharge of a firearm — are counted in annual use of force surveys police must submit to the policing and security branch of the Ministry of Public Safety Ministry. The ministry gathers this data for reasons of accountability and to assess training needs.
Use of force surveys for 2007 to 2019 obtained by Postmedia in response to freedom of information requests show that when police use lethal force in B.C., 77 per cent of the time the target is an animal. But the data provided by police is limited and recent changes to the ministry survey mean that even less is known about animal shootings.
Police are only required to answer two questions related to animal shootings in the 20-page survey: the number of such incidents and the number of rounds fired. After 2019, police no longer had to provide separate counts for self-defence and humanitarian shootings. This means the ministry no longer knows why animals are being shot, whether the number of rounds fired indicate more training in humane killings is needed, or whether animal shootings pose public safety risks.
Some police departments, like the Saanich police, appear to have relatively robust reporting systems. Between 2007 and 2019, Saanich police reported firing 493 times in 447 animal shootings — the highest number of animal killings recorded by a police force in B.C. Nearly all were deer being put down after being hit on roads. The data suggests that Saanich officers usually kill with a single shot, one indicator that an animal has been humanely dispatched. Saanich Const. Markus Anastasiades said the department tracks animal shootings in line with its commitment to transparency and accountability.
By contrast, the RCMP — operating throughout B.C. — reported only those incidents in which animals were shot for self-defence reasons. Between 2007 and 2019, the RCMP reported firing 113 times in 53 defensive incidents. The RCMP make up about 70 per cent of all police in B.C., but account for over 85 per cent of all self-defence animal shootings.
RCMP incident summaries of 55 “self-defence” animal shootings between 2007 and 2018 obtained in response to a freedom of information request reveal the chaotic circumstances of these shootings — with many occurring during the serving of search warrants, in populated residential areas, or after animals interacted with police dogs.
In many of the incidents, RCMP officers fired several shots. In 12 incidents, animals wounded by police were reported to have gone on to attack others or escaped. In a 2007 incident, an animal control officer was struck by a bullet fragment. There were no reports of critical injuries to RCMP members as a result of encounters with animals.
Other police departments indicated in their ministry surveys that data on animal shootings was unavailable, unknown, or not collected for various years.
This was the case for the Vancouver Police Department, which reported only one animal shooting between 2007 and 2019. VPD spokesperson Tania Visintin said that injuries resulting from firearm discharges are reportable, but she did not respond to questions about the department’s reporting policies when it comes to animal shootings. The VPD works with animal control officers to minimize police interactions with animals.
Unlike police use of force on humans, annual data on animal shootings is not analyzed and made public in the ministry’s published reports. None of the animal advocates, researchers, law enforcement trainers or police agencies contacted for this investigation were aware of any ministry data.
“Police officers are not experts in animal behaviour,” said the RCMP’s Hiscoe. “But if an animal is growling and showing its teeth, their shoulders are hunched down and it looks like they’re going to attack, I would assume that is enough for a police officer to determine that this is an aggressive dog.”
Currently no animal-specific training is required for RCMP recruits or for recertifying officers.
Hiscoe said officers are trained to rely on an incident management intervention model to assess any risks they face before reaching for a weapon. Hiscoe oversees use of force training programs through the RCMP’s Pacific Region training centre in Chilliwack.
Police learn to use firearms and less lethal “intermediate weapons,” including batons, pepper spray and Tasers. But officers are not trained on how to use these weapons on an animal, Hiscoe said. Nor is there any requirement that police use intermediate weapons or weaponless tactics before reaching for their guns. Summaries of RCMP animal shooting incidents between 2007 and 2018 reveal that officers attempted to use less-lethal weapons or tactics in 30 per cent of incidents in which animals were shot.
There are reasons, Hiscoe said, police may forgo less lethal options and resort to shooting aggressive animals. Pepper spray on a “goal oriented” animal intent on attack “is likely not going to do anything,” he said. And because both darts of a taser must embed in the target, tasers will not likely be useful against “a moving target” like an animal.
“Sometimes discharging your pistol is the only option,” Hiscoe said. He has never shot a dog in his 32 years as a police officer.
Recruits to the province’s 12 non-RCMP municipal police forces attend the Justice Institute of B.C. Police Academy.
Steve Schnitzer, director of the academy, said recruits do not receive animal encounter training nor does firearms training include lessons on euthanizing animals.
Christine Lute has been advocating better police training and use of less lethal options since 2016. In addition to administering a Facebook page “Dogs shot by Canadian police,” Lute organizes protests, gives advice to families whose dogs have been killed, and routinely questions police after shooting incidents.
In November 2020, Richmond RCMP officers shot and killed a dog after two officers were bitten in a surprise encounter as they entered a building near the city centre. Lute questions whether bystanders were put in danger when police fired their weapons.
“It’s not just about the animals anymore, it’s about people,” said Lute, pointing to deaths or serious injuries caused by stray or ricochet bullets in police shootings of dogs in the U.S. “It happens and it’s just a matter of time before it happens here.”
This article by Suzanne Baustad was first published by The Vancouver Sun on 28 August 2021. Suzanne Baustad is a 2021 recipient of the Langara College Read-Mercer Journalism Fellowship. This feature was produced through the fellowship. Lead Image: Saanich Police animal control officers Susan Ryan and Derek Rees with Det.-Sgt. Damian Kowalewich (Centre) along a trail in Swan Lake in Saanich. Saanich police is the only B.C. department to employ its own animal control officers as the district has put down more animals than any other department in B.C., primarily deer hit by vehicles. It has a track record of killing them humanely. Photo by Chad Hipolito / PNG.
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