Many police officers would say they would never want to hurt a family pet. Unfortunately, there are certain situations that place an officer in a position where he feels he has no other choice than to protect himself and shoot a dog. Most of families with dogs who are killed by police officers have little to no recourse available because the law widely considers dogs to be property. Sadly, this limits damages in a civil case for the death of a family dog at the hands of the police to the dog’s economic value. When you consider the fact that many dogs are adopted or cost next to nothing, families have no remedy available unless the family lives in a state that also allows for emotional damages. Fortunately, this trend is changing, as multiple courts have recently awarded substantial damages to families who lose a dog at the hands of the police.
The movement toward awarding a family money for the death of a dog at the hands of the police started in California in 2005. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at San Francisco held that San Jose police officers violated the Fourth Amendment and committed an unconstitutional seizure when they raided a Hells Angels clubhouse and several members’ homes and killed three dogs. The city paid a $797,500 settlement. Since then, there have been multiple high settlements and judgments. The settlements include $100,000 paid by the city of Detroit in 2016 after a police officer killed a dog chained up next to a home, $885,000 paid by the city of Hartford in 2017 after an officer shot and killed a dog during an unlawful search, and $262,500 paid to a Colorado family in 2016 after an officer killed their dog.
Similarly, in May 2017, a jury awarded dog owner Michael Reeves $1,260,000, which is the highest civil judgment in U.S. history awarded for a pet’s death at the hands of the police. Reeves’ family dog, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, was shot twice by an officer investigating a robbery. Reeves rushed out and tried to save his gasping dog by putting his fingers in the bullet wounds, but Reeves’ efforts were unsuccessful and his dog died shortly after. Pursuant to a Maryland statute that limits local government liability, the court later reduced the $1.26 million judgment to $207,500. Nevertheless, this is still one of the highest awards for the loss of a family pet at the hands of the police.
No one knows exactly how many dogs are killed by the police each year, as there is no uniform reporting requirement. However, the frequently cited estimate from the U.S. Department of Justice states approximately 25-30 dogs are killed by police officers each day. For most dog owners, no amount of money can compensate them for the loss of their dog because their dog was a member of their family. Most of these families would rather just have their dog alive. The high judgments and settlements many of these cities paid out to these families caused some cities to instill training programs to teach officers how to appropriately handle encounters with family pets. Hopefully, cities can put far less money into these training programs than they would pay out in settlement or jury awards, and fewer families will endure the tragedy of a police officer killing their beloved dog.