Oakland police receive animal encounter training

June 27, 2011 8:46:27 PM PDT
Oakland police officers are now better prepared to deal with animals. After a couple of tragic, and embarrassing, encounters last year, Oakland's police chief promised to develop what has become one of the nation's first training courses of its kind. The department has held its first class on animal encounters.

When a young deer ran into a resident's East Oakland carport, in May of last year, police officers believed shooting it was their only option.

"They didn't have to do that, they didn't have to do that, they could have figured something else out," witness Kim McLemore said.

And when Oakland police officers answered a burglar alarm at a home five months later, they shot and killed the family's growling arthritic 11-year-old dog Gloria.

"Did you have to go to the revolver first? Was there pepper spray or mace or Taser or baton?" Gloria's owner Ward Hallock said.

"Many times I've been chased out of back yards and the dog was on the side of the house and they would run and I had to run and hop over the fence, but I never learned exactly how to deal with those situations," Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts said.

A year after the deer and the dog incidents, the East Bay SPCA developed a course on animal encounters and Batts just launched his department's first training class. Officers are learning to use their batons, pepper spray, fire extinguishers, and in some cases, even Tasers.

Most of the course teaches officers how to deal with dogs. The East Bay SPCA found that most police officers who used unnecessary lethal force did not have pets as children and were uncomfortable around animals as adults.

Officers are taught that dogs speak with their bodies. Most will growl at intruders, but will eventually back down. However, offensive dogs will stiffen up and give a hard stare.

In some cases, a police encounter with a pet has lead to a legal fight.

"Lawsuits are becoming more prevalent by folks who have had their pets shot by officers and they are being won; DA's are starting to take a look at pets as family members," East Bay SPCA Executive Director Allison Lindquist said.

The city of Richmond recently paid out more than $700,000 in wrongful pet death settlements and that is why the East Bay SPCA says police departments across the country are asking about its training program.

"The SPCA has stepped up, has taught us a lot, has taught us a lot about animal behavior; I think it's a plus for us," Batts said.

Police departments in San Francisco, Berkeley and Piedmont are reviewing the training course, as are departments as far away as Seattle and St. Petersburg, Florida.

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