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  • Mike Fry

The Undeniable Link Between Cops Shooting People and Pets

Note: Between the time that I wrote this piece and the time it was published, two more police shootings have occurred. In WYNNEWOOD, OK, a police officer shot and killed a family pet in front of a group of children who were celebrating a birthday party. In Miami, cops shot an unarmed black man who was providing comfort to an autistic patient. The man was not only unarmed, be was laying on his back with his arms in the air. Consider that as you read this piece.

When I watched two recent videos relating to cops fatally shooting two different victims in different states I did so through a very unusual filter. In my day job, I advocate for No Kill policies in our nation’s animal shelters and I consult with animal shelters working to achieve No Kill status. In those roles I frequently rub elbows with police or government officials that oversee police departments, because municipal animal shelters are often run by, and nearly always work closely with, police departments. In addition to that, my work has required me over the years to watch a significant number of videos of police officers shooting and killing innocent family pets. Without a doubt, this work effected how I view the videos of the recent police shootings.

Before I go on, I have to say that by mentioning cops killing dogs, I am not equating killing dogs with killing people. However, these very different events share striking similarities. Both have common causes and follow similar patterns.

The shootings of dogs by police have largely resulted from the widespread demonization of dogs that many people refer to as “pit bulls” even though that term does not actually refer to a specific breed of dog. People use the phrase to refer to any kind of strong dog with a blocky head. American Staffordshire Terriers, Bull Terriers, and Staffordshire Bull Terriers are some of the breeds most likely to be labeled “pit bulls.” It is worth noting that the United Kennel Club does recognize a breed called the “American Pit Bull Terrier” that is really just an American Staffordshire Terrier (as named by the American Kennel Club, or AKC) under a different name. Some people like to throw several other breeds into the so-called “pit bull” category, including Douge de Bordeau, Catahoula Leopard Dogs and many others.

Suffice it to say that when someone refers to a dog as a “pit bull” it is impossible to know what breed they may be referencing to. The conversation around this non-breed of dogs escalates to the point of absurdity when mixed breed dogs – which make up the majority of dogs – get factored in. Because they are strong and often have blocky heads, it is not uncommon for Boxer/Labrador Retriever mixes to be labeled “pit bulls” by popular media, but usually only if they have done something wrong.

The fact that there is no single breed that is referred to as a “pit bull,” or that no one really knows what anyone is talking about when they mention the term, has not stopped a plethora of urban legends about so-called pit bulls from being popularized. Here are a few of the most ridiculous:

  1. Put bulls have locking jaws. No. None of the breeds most often called pit bulls have locking jaws.

  2. Pit bulls can exert 1,800 pounds per square inch of jaw pressure. No. Bite pressure tests indicate that most large dog breeds, including those mistakenly called pit bulls, have bite strengths of about 320 PSI.

  3. Pit bulls are born to be mean. No, again. All of the breeds commonly called pit bulls have historically been bred and raised to live in close proximity to people and children. Prior to the widespread demonization of these dogs, they were some of our national treasures. Think Pete from Spanky and the Gang.

  4. Pit bulls are more likely to bite or attack. False again. Organizations that test dog behavior consistently rate the breeds most commonly called “pit bulls” as being some of the most trustworthy of dogs.

America has demonized dogs that look a certain way through the repeated telling of these and other urban legends, and then by falsely sensationalizing dog bites by labeling dogs that bite as pit bulls. Once we decided there was this separate category of dog, that was unlike other dogs, our popular media began reporting on them differently. If a dog labeled as pit bull even barks at someone, it may be reported as a “pit bull attack.” The entire false narrative gets spun out of control. The Associated Press recently reported on a fatal dog attack by a Shar Pei. They described the Shar Pei as “a pit bull mix."

Ultimately, the demonization and irrational fear of these dogs leads to police needlessly shooting them. When a dog they think is a pit bull approaches cops, the officers are more likely to panic, draw their weapon and fire, even when the dogs are doing nothing wrong.

Ironically, the shooting of these innocent dogs is strongly connected to systemic racism directed against African Americans. One of the ways so-called pit bulls have been demonized, in fact, has been by linking them via popular media to black culture. They have been portrayed as the dog of choice for inner city gangs. In this way, the term “pit bull” has become equivalent to “thug dog.” It is a derogatory term laced with racist overtones. The racist link to the term “pit bull” is proven by the fact that some animal shelters have chosen to kill these dogs, rather than make them available for adoption, even if they are happy, friendly dogs. Part of the “reasoning” for doing so is that the dogs might attract “undesirable” people to the shelter.

In my work of nearly twenty years advocating for No Kill animal shelter policies I have become all too familiar with the typical scenario that plays out when an officer panics and shoots an innocent dog because of fear driven by ignorant stereotyping and urban legends. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would link those events to cops killing people for similar reasons. That all changed the day I watched the video of the killing of Philando Castile by a Falcon Heights police officer, just a few miles from my home in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The video, live streamed on Facebook by Castile’s fiancé, does not show the actual shooting. The recording begins immediately after it occurred. You can’t see the face of the officer involved. He is standing outside the car, gun still drawn, and shouting. His voice sounds as though he is in a panicked state of mind, practically unhinged compared to Castile’s fiancé, Lavish Reynolds, who is sitting in the car and filming as Castile slumps over dying in the seat next to her. Her voice is eerily calm relative to the officer who shouts, “I told him to put his hands up! I told him not to reach for it!”

Reynolds calmly responds, “You told him to get his ID, sir, his driver’s license.”

How does a cop go from asking someone to reach for their ID, to shooting them because they did so in a split second? The only logical explanation is panic, a common characteristic of the videos I have watched of cops using lethal force against innocent dogs. What is the most likely cause of the panic? Ignorance and systemic racism are the most likely explanations.

We have, after all, set up a predatory economic system that has, via widespread, institutional racism, pushed humans with dark skin to the bottom of our nation’s economic pyramid. Our history is filled with examples of how we have done this. Slavery and Jim Crow were big and obvious ones, but there have been plenty of others. The disproportionate distribution of funds from the GI Bill between whites and blacks, is another that stands out. The redlining of neighborhoods, which is still going on today, is yet another. Collectively, this systemic racism has created communities of color that are economically disadvantaged and places of poverty that breed violence, because economically oppressed communities always breed violence.

Like a never-ending feedback loop, the violence leads to more racial profiling. Cops disproportionally pulling over African Americans for minor traffic offenses. These further enflame relationships between cops and people. Just like how the media reports on so-called “pit bulls” differently, it also tends to report differently when talking about “black crime” when compared to “white crime.” On and on it goes.

Into that potential powder keg, add about 200 million guns that are largely unregulated and that have been marketed by instilling a host of public fears, including myths, urban legends and racism

We have created a toxic environment in which police are more likely to panic and use excessive force and do so disproportionally against non-whites. They are also more likely to get away with it because police departments tend to maintain highly fraternal, “protect our own” attitudes.

We like to say, “All Lives Matter.” But, the fact is that All Lives Won’t Matter in practical terms until Black Lives Actually Matter. That can’t really happen until we make amends for the wrongs that have been done and we implement changes so that people of color are no longer generally relegated to the lowest levels of our economy. Until those things happen, platitudes like “I support cops” or “all lives matter” mean absolutely nothing.

We need to get busy enacting meaningful gun regulations and doing other things to keep cops from flipping out in the line of work. And, cops need to do a much better job weeding out the ones that are ill suited to the challenges of the job. But, more importantly, we need to drop the myths, stereotypes and rampant racism that feeds the fear that drives the dysfunction in the system. We won’t solve these problems until we do those things.

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