A version of this story was originally published by Reason magazine and Reason.com. It is reprinted here with permission. C.J. Ciaramella is a criminal justice reporter at Reason.
Detroit police officers shot 54 dogs last year, according to public records obtained by Reason. That's a marked increase over the number reported by the department in 2016 and 2015, and more than twice as many as Chicago, a city with roughly 2 million more people.
The rise occurred at the same time Detroit is trying to fend off lawsuits from residents who say police wantonly killed their dogs during drug raids. Such incidents, given the grim moniker "puppycide," regularly make local and national headlines across the country, and in recent years they've cost cities hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal settlements.
In response, several states have passed laws mandating new training, and police departments have begun teaching officers how to properly read canine behavior. Chicago police, for instance, shot 24 dogs last year, according to the Chicago Tribune. The number of dogs shot by Chicago police has been steadily falling — 67 percent over the past three years, the city says — and officials attribute it to better training.
Detroit, meanwhile, went from 25 dog shootings in 2015 to more than twice that in 2017, although several reports were missing from previous records provided by the city.
There are, of course, vast differences between cash-strapped Detroit and other major U.S. cities. In 23 of those shootings, Detroit police were responding to reports of aggressive dogs running loose on the street, sometimes menacing and attacking residents. According to city data, Detroit's 911 service received 5,999 animal complaints and vicious animal reports in 2017. In one case, a police officer saved a child who was being mauled by two pit bulls. Officers sometimes tried to lure dogs with food and treats or use a control stick, according to police reports. In others, they waited in vain for animal control before taking the situation into their own hands.
But more than one-third of those dog shootings involved a Detroit narcotics unit that has been at the center of numerous media reports and costly lawsuits.
A 2016 Reason investigation found that the Detroit Police Department's Major Violators Unit, which conducts hundreds of drug raids a year in the city, had a nasty habit of leaving dead dogs in its wake.
One officer had killed 69 dogs over the course of his career, public records showed. That officer has now shot 80 dogs, according to "destruction of animal" reports filed by Detroit police officers in 2017 and obtained by Reason.
Of the 54 dogs destroyed by the department in 2017, 19 were killed during drug raids conducted by the Major Violators Unit. That's more animal shootings than the entire Los Angeles Police Department performed — 14 total — in 2016, the latest year for which summary statistics of LAPD use-of-force incidents are available.
The Major Violators Unit was responsible for an April 26, 2017, narcotics raid on Detroit resident Renee Attles' house that ended with her pit bull being shot dead. Speaking to a local television news channel, Attles said the police stormed into her home and killed her dog during a wrong-house drug raid:
"I am so hurt," said Renee Attles. "You all you don't understand, I am so freaking hurt. That was my dog."
Renee Attles says she ran out to her sister's car to decide where they were going to celebrate their deceased mother's birthday. All of a sudden Detroit police stormed her Ryan Street home.
"I said what do you want," she said. "They handcuffed me and her sister at her car before we even got right there. All I heard was pop, pop, pow. Just like that. I told them let me get my dog."
The only drug confiscated from the scene was a small bottle of Attles' medical marijuana.
Another destruction of animal report shows that several hours earlier that same day, the same Major Violators Unit crew executed another narcotics search warrant on a house a mile and a half away and shot another pitbull. Again, the only drug recovered was marijuana.
This February, the Detroit City Council approved a $225,000 settlement to Kenneth Savage and Ashley Franklin. The couple filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last July against the city and several Detroit police officers, alleging the officers shot Savage and Franklin's three dogs while the animals were enclosed behind an 8-foot-tall fence — all so the officers could confiscate several potted marijuana plants in the backyard.
In 2015, the city of Detroit approved a $100,000 settlement to a man after police shot his dog while it was securely chained to a fence.
Two other federal civil rights lawsuits stemming from Detroit drug raids are currently being considered by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. In one, Detroit resident Nikita Smith alleges that narcotics officers shot her three pitbulls, including one that was secured behind a bathroom door. Smith was initially charged with a marijuana offense, but the charges were dismissed when police failed to appear at her court hearing.
In the second lawsuit, Nicole Motyka and Joel Castro say narcotics officers raided their house and shot two of their pitbulls, despite the dogs being behind a barrier in the kitchen. The officers found 26 marijuana plants inside, which shouldn't have been a surprise. Castro was a state-licensed medical marijuana caregiver. Marijuana charges against the couple were later dropped.
"I don't want anything to do with the Detroit police anymore," Motyka told Reason in an interview. "You grow up being taught these are the people you're supposed to trust, and then they come in and kill your family. I have no love for them. None. They probably sleep well at night. We don't."
‘You grow up being taught these are the people you’re supposed to trust, and then they come in and kill your family. I have no love for them. None. They probably sleep well at night. We don’t.’
To try and combat these lawsuits, the city of Detroit has adopted the novel legal argument that, if a dog is unlicensed, as in Smith's case, it is considered "contraband" and not protected from unreasonable police seizure — read: killing — under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.
Two lower federal judges have come to opposite conclusions on the issue. One dismissed Smith's case, ruling that her unlicensed dogs amounted to contraband. The other federal judge rejected Detroit's argument in Motyka's lawsuit and ruled that the couple's unlicensed dog was still legitimate property.
The Sixth Circuit Court now has the unenviable task of determining whether a pet's property status lies in its owner's compliance with city regulations, and if that means a police officer can shoot it with impunity.
The Detroit Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, in an interview last March with a local news channel, Detroit Police Assistant Chief James White defended the department from charges that it is needlessly shooting dogs.
"This isn't Fluffy the family pet in many instances," White told WDIV. "Door comes off the hinges. There's pandemonium. People are running. Perpetrator, in many instances, has a weapon himself, can start shooting. Sometimes the dog is used as a tactic to get the advantage over the officers, and I just don't think it would be acceptable to an officer to put their life at risk to try to stop a dog from attacking them during a drug raid."
Officers were found in compliance with department regulations in every single destruction of animal report reviewed by Reason.
As I've written several times, better police training on how to read dogs' body language would help in some cases, but these stories will inevitably continue as long as the Detroit police continue to perform aggressive drug raids on a daily basis.
The lawsuits will inevitably continue, too.