Monday, December 26, 2011

“Oh Shit, a Pit Bull!” Did Breed Mythology Kill a Dog During a Police Raid?

When I get my time machine out of the shop, I’m going to go back 100 years to tell some amazing things to the dog world. I’m going to tell them that where I come from, Great Danes are gentle companions for children and are one of the most cuddly breeds a family can own. I’m also going to tell them that nanny dogs, as pit bulls were sometimes known, will become so hated and feared that they may be shot on sight. Both predictions will seem so ridiculous that I won’t be believed.

A Drug Raid in Columbia, Missouri

Jonathan and Brittany Whitworth, and their son, P.M., lived in Columbia, Missouri. They owned a pit bull terrier named Nala and a mixed-breed dog named Bruno that may have had boxer, bulldog, and even Corgi in his blood. A SWAT team of at least eight officers executed a search warrant on the Whitworth residence on February 11, 2010. A separate officer with the Columbia Police Department videotaped the raid.

Jonathan Whitworth had a history of drug convictions, and had been sentenced to jail for 15 months in 2003. Informers and neighbors told the police that Whitworth was selling marijuana and was attempting to obtain cocaine. Garbage from the Whitworth residence was confiscated, resulting in paper clips that tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The use of a large SWAT team was justified because Whitworth was said by the police to have a history of physically resisting arrests.

On forcing the door, the SWAT team saw—depending apparently on different accounts of team members—either one or two dogs at the threshold or running towards them. Sergeant Schlude, one of the team members, said, “Oh shit, a pit bull.” Officer Cavener fired a shot at the pit bull 1.09 seconds after entry. Cavener expected the dog to retreat and it did.

The Whitworths, in an amended complaint, said that SWAT officers chased one of the dogs into the kitchen. The pit bull was bleeding and running around the kitchen. The court describes what happened next:

“[Officer] Fox shot the pit bull because he recognized it to be a pit bull and because it was running at his legs and not stopping. Two other officers fired at the pit bull around the same time. One of these officers was Quintana, who stated in his report that he fireed one round at the pit bull because he believed the dog was going to attack him. Officer Quintana had noticed the pit bull with its ears pinned back and postured in an aggressive manner, although he did not testify that it growled, barked, or approached him. Quintana was in close proximity with the pit bull at this point. Officer Horrell observed that right before the officers shot the pit bull, the pit bull had run into a sliding glass door and had gotten up and began to scamper. Horrell later examined the other dog, Bruno, and observed blood on his leg.” (emphasis added)

The court then shifts its attention to Jonathan Whitworth:

“When the first SWAT officer encountered Mr. Whitworth, the officer ordered Mr. Whitworth to get on the ground and put his hands behind his back. Mr. Whitworth got on the ground but put his hands behind is head. Officers told Mr. Whitworth a second time to put his hands behind his back. As Mr. Whitworth went to move his hands behind his back, Officer Hendrick's foot made a single contact with Mr. Whitworth's face and shoulder for the purpose of getting Mr. Whitworth to put his arms behind his back…. The parties dispute whether this contact can correctly be characterized as a kick, but the Court views it as one for purposes of this motion. This kick caused Mr. Whitworth pain, but resulted in no bruising, broken bones, or broken skin, and Mr. Whitworth never received medical attention as a result. Mr. Whitworth was cursing during this altercation, in a manner that Schlude took for aggression.”

Brittany Whitworth went into a bedroom with her son and closed the door. An officer opened the door and ordered her to the front of the house. “Mrs. Whitworth asked if herself and P.M. could move positions to avoid the sight of their deceased dog, and officers brought them outside and into the back of a police car…. Officer Clements entered the police car and whispered to Mrs. Whitworth that one dog was dead and the other had been shot in the leg. Mrs. Whitworth asked for the police car to be moved forward so her and P.M. could not see Nala's body brought out of the house, and Clements complied.” (The ungrammatical use of reflexive pronouns by the court presumably reflects the wording of witnesses.)

Subsequent events of the day primarily described Brittany Whitworth:

“Mrs. Whitworth and P.M. were in the police car for two hours. P.M. was sobbing while in the police car. Mrs. Whitworth asked if her mother-in-law could come pick up P.M., but Clements refused. Police Officers instructed Mrs. Whitworth to leave the car at four different times, and supervised her each time she left. The first time, Detective Rukstad asked Mrs. Whitworth if she had any questions, and she asked Rukstad to tell P.M. that Nala was alive and being taken to be a police dog, with which Rukstad complied. The second time, Mrs. Whitworth went to her garage to get a mop. This was her longest absence from the police car, at seven to ten minutes. The third time, animal control arrived and informed Mrs. Whitworth that they had removed Nala's body and would be taking Bruno for medical attention. The fourth time, Mrs. Whitworth went to the master bedroom to wrap Bruno, who was bleeding in its paw, in a blanket for herself and animal control to carry out of the house.”

Lawsuit Against Columbia Police Officers

Brittany Whitworth filed claims in federal district court under 42 U.S.C. 1983 and Missouri state law. Section 1983 provides for civil redress for deprivation of rights under state law. The court said it had to look at the circumstances “from the viewpoint of a reasonable officer on the scene with knowledge that Mr. Whitworth had a history of resisting arrest,” and held that such an officer could reasonably ensure that “the wounded dog still on the premises did not attack officers in an attempt to defend the Whitworths … [and remove] the Whitworths' dogs—one alive and one deceased—from the Whitworth residence while allowing Mrs. Whitworth to accompany P.M. when possible and while keeping P.M. away from seeing the dogs.”

As to pointing guns at the Whitworths, the court stated:

“The Court agrees that ideally officers would execute search warrants without pointing a gun at women and children not suspected of committing a crime. On the other hand, where officers are aware that a dangerous suspect and two large dogs are on the property, a reasonable officer could, in the heat of the moment, rely on such tactics to prod individuals to move swiftly through a potentially dangerous situation. This is especially true, where shouting and gun-pointing occurred as Mrs. Whitworth and P.M. stepped over Mr. Whitworth—who was lying on the floor—and the danger of resistance by any of the Whitworths was arguably at its highest. In this context, the behavior alleged by the Whitworths did not violate a clearly established constitutional right.”

The court also rejected an unreasonable seizure argument based in part on an analogy to a case in which an officer shot a family dog standing near its owner when responding to a call about a stray dog. Andrews v. City of West Branch, 454 F.3d 914 (8th Cir. 2006) (discussed in Police and Military Dogs). The court, referring to Andrews, stated:

“[T]hat cased involved an officer who—while investigating a call about a stray dog—shot and killed, without provocation, a family dog in an enclosed yard that was standing within feet of its owner…. But the present case, even viewing facts in the light most favorable to the Whitworths, involves a large dog standing its ground in the doorway that a SWAT team is about to enter, or running around a kitchen toward police officers. Even if the Whitworths' dogs were not acting aggressively, the Whitworths have not produced evidence that either of their dogs “presented no danger and [that] non-lethal methods of capture would have been successful.”… Rather, these dogs, simply by standing their ground or running excitedly in the path through which the officers needed to quickly pass to secure the scene, stood to frustrate the officers' important objective of securing and searching the house, and presented a risk of attack to passing officers that was great enough to justify a reasonable officer in incapacitating the dogs. The bullet holes in the Whitworths' property are incidental to officers firing at the Whitworths' dogs, so they require no separate analysis for reasonableness.

“Further, even if the officer Defendants did violate the Whitworths' rights in shooting their dogs, the Whitworths have not shown that this was a clearly established right. The requirement that the right violated be clearly established 'operates to protect officers from the sometimes hazy border between excessive and acceptable force, and to ensure that before they are subjected to suit, officers are on notice their conduct is unlawful.' Samuelson v. City of New Ulm, 455 F.3d 871, 877 (8th Cir.2006) (internal quotes omitted). Federal courts have spoken little about how dogs fit into the analysis of unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment, as evidenced by the scant applicable precedent cited by the parties. Dogs easily qualify as property that can be unreasonably seized by the state, but they also contain a latent threat to human safety that has rarely been weighed under the Fourth Amendment's objective-reasonableness standard. Although some dogs are friendly, others are bred and trained to kill, and dogs of either sort can be unpredictable both in their actions and in the signals they send. This unpredictability can increase if a dog is wounded or its owners are being subdued. The reasonable officer would consider all of this when forced into close proximity with a strange dog by the exigencies of executing a search warrant on a dangerous suspect. The Whitworths cite a Missouri statute outlining the legality of a civilian killing a dog in self-defense, but that would not put a police officer on notice of the constitutional boundaries of subduing a large dog in a quickly changing situation such as this one. Because any constitutional right violated by the officer Defendants in shooting the Whitworths' dog was not clearly established, the officer Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on this claim.”

The Whitworths also argued intentional infliction of emotional distress in the shooting of the dogs in the presence of their owners. The officers were granted summary judgment on this because the conduct was not intended solely to cause emotional distress to the Whitworths.

Summary judgment was granted to the officers on all counts. Whitworth v. Bolinger, 2011 WL 5838406 (W.D. Mo. 2011).

What Really Happened?

The court's description of the events does not bring us into the Whitworth home as if the testimony could substitute for a hand-held camera. Although the raid was videotaped, I have been unable to find any posting of this video. Some of the description suggests the dogs were trying to escape the gunfire, not run towards it. The stories of the participants naturally support their respective interests, and it is not surprising that the court gave the benefit of the doubt to the police. Nevertheless, the use of the SWAT team and the bin Laden-type raid seems a bit excessive. Jonathan Whitworth, if having enough trouble finding cocaine to sell that the police heard about it, was at most a relatively low-level dealer. Meanwhile, Brittany Whitworth labored mightily to keep the whole incident from permanently scarring her son.

The Whitworths, however, cannot claim complete innocence in the fate of poor Nala. Pit bulls bring out the worst in some people, both those who own them and those who fear them. This is not the fault of the dog, but rather a result of an unfortunate and, given the history of the nanny dog, often inaccurate image in contemporary culture. Engaging in activities that interest the police, if this is what was going on, is likely to put the pit bull in danger, without affording any real protection to a family (unless it is to scare others besides the police).

For a time I made it a habit of suggesting to owners of pit bulls that they might reduce resistance in housing and other disputes by referring to their dogs as American Staffordshire Terriers. Then one day at a local pet store, I heard a man bragging about the fear his pit bull engendered in his guests, which he saw as amusing, and I made my usual, invariably unappreciated, recommendation that there would be less fear if he called the dog a Staffordshire. Clearly irritated, he more mumbled than spoke: “I want them to know it’s a pit bull.”

There is too much of this. The police invading the Whitworths’ home had bought the myth, just as have city councils and other legislative bodies adopting anti-pit bull legislation. The laws are at least as much about the owners as they are about the dogs. We don’t want your kind, and we don’t want the dogs of your kind.

A recent paper reported on survey results of individuals who adopted pit bulls and similar-sized dogs of other breeds from an animal shelter in British Columbia. The study followed 40 pit bulls and 42 dogs of other breeds. Three of the pit bulls and two of the other dogs had to be euthanized at the shelter for aggression. The remaining 77 dogs were given homes. One pit bull and ten dogs of other breeds were returned to the shelter because of “alleged aggression.” Whether this meant the pit bulls were actually less aggressive is not clear. Pit bull adopters were more likely to be under age 30 and may have been more accepting of aggression, or may have even wanted it. Nevertheless, for dogs that were retained for at least two months, owner reports of aggression were similar for pit bulls and non-pit bulls. The authors concluded that their study “provided no evidence of greater aggression or poorer care among adopted pit bulls compared to dogs of other breeds.” MacNeil-Allcock, A., Clarke, N.M., Ledger, R.A., and Fraser, D. (2011). Aggression, Behavior, and Animal Care Among Pit Bulls and Other Dogs Adopted from an Animal Shelter. Animal Welfare, 20, 463-8.

That the owners are responsible for the modern imagery of pit bulls is emphasized in a paper that surveyed 754 college students regarding the breeds they had chosen. The focus was on six breeds: Akitas, Chows, Dobermans, Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, and wolf mixes. The questionnaire the students filled out was intended to assess the type of dog owned, criminal thinking, callousness, personality, alcohol usage, and deviant lifestyle behaviors. The authors of the paper found that “[v]icious dog owners reported significantly higher criminal thinking, entitlement, sentimentality, and superoptimism tendencies. Vicious dog owners were arrested, engaged in physical fights, and used marijuana significantly more than other dog owners.” They concluded that “[c]hoosing to own a vicious dog may be a ‘thin slice’ indicator of more antisocial tendencies.” Schenk, A.M., Ragatz, L.L., and Fremouw, W.J. (online 2011), Vicious Dogs Part 2: Criminal Thinking, Callousness, and Personality Styles of Their Owners. Journal of Forensic Sciences (DOI: 10.1111/j.1556-4029.2011.01961.x).


I occasionally get emails and calls from readers of Service and Therapy Dogs in American Society asking what I consider the ideal breed for therapy dog work. I generally ramble on a bit about my personal predilections, but try to avoid recommending almost any specific breed or mix. However, I usually caution against getting a breed that is going to frighten people. It adds complexity to first interactions. When challenged, I always admit that one of Michael Vick’s pit bulls became a therapy dog. Unfortunately, the reaction of some people to a dog, particularly on first seeing it, will depend on general social attitudes, and pit bulls too often raise the kind of fear expressed by the policeman in the Whitworth case. “Oh shit, a pit bull.”

In this way I have to admit that I am guilty of perpetuating a myth I regard as unfortunate, even offensive. Frankly, I wish that criminals would favor teacup poodles. They would provide as much defense as other breeds—probably more, since their nervousness would better guarantee advance warning of intruders—and they would be much less likely to bring unnecessary gunplay into a police raid.

Thanks for suggestions from Fran Breitkopf and L.E. Papet.

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