The shooting last Monday (April 14) of a Doberman pinscher by a New Orleans police officer was, in the words of Louisiana SPCA executive director Ana Zorrilla, "a tragedy on many levels." The officer who shot Jax, a 4-year-old dog belonging to Patrick Coleman, was responding to a tripped burglar alarm at Coleman's Lakeview home. He was there to help protect a neighborhood that, like many neighborhoods post-Katrina, has been plagued by property crimes. In such circumstances, it is common for an officer to enter a yard with his or her gun at the ready, in anticipation of encountering a dangerous criminal. For dogs, who are ever loyal to their owners and protective of their yard space, the sight of a stranger coming through the gate will trigger an equally predictable response. According to Zorrilla, whose agency contracts with the city to help manage NOPD animal encounters, "The chain of events leading up to Monday's shooting is not uncommon in police work." That makes the shooting of Jax even more tragic. Had NOPD routinely trained its officers in managing sudden but common animal encounters, this tragedy might have been averted. Both the LA/SPCA and the Humane Society of Louisiana have weighed in on the subject of how to prevent such tragedies in the future. Zorrilla met last Friday with NOPD Chief Warren Riley who has two family dogs himself to suggest a specific course of action: animal-encounter training at the Police Academy and ongoing, in-service training for cops already in the field. "We had a very good meeting," Zorrilla told Gambit Weekly afterward. "The chief understands the grief that the dog owner feels in this situation, but he also understands the need to protect his officers. I feel very positive about the training programs that we will draft, and I believe a good partnership will come from this."
Preventing future heartbreaks like that suffered by Coleman would be the best outcome of all. The topics that such training sessions ought to include are familiar to organizations like the LA/SPCA and the Humane Society: recognizing and reading animal body language, how to be safe and proactive in an animal encounter, how to use non-lethal force in dealing with menacing dogs, and how to react if bitten or attacked. "This is an opportunity to create more unity in our community," says Jeff Dorson, executive director of the Humane Society of Louisiana, which initially criticized NOPD's handling of Jax's killing. "There is no need to create a wall between our local police and our citizens. A community comprised of "us' and "them' will not work. However, to accomplish that, the police do need to raise their professional standards and show some understanding in handling these types of matters."
For its part, NOPD has responded to the shooting by launching a Public Integrity Bureau (PIB) investigation into Jax's death. Chief Riley ordered the investigation after Coleman complained that the shooting was improper and that the officer in question acted "unprofessionally" at the scene. PIB investigations are common after a citizen complains of police misconduct or unprofessional behavior. In this case, Coleman has alleged that the officer shot at Jax repeatedly up to eight times while the dog was retreating into the house. Coleman was not at home when the shooting occurred, however. Police found eight shell casings at the scene. The officer in question has claimed that Jax growled and lunged at him. Coleman disputes that claim, saying Jax had recently had spinal surgery and was too weak to act aggressively and that the dog typically was mild-mannered.
The contradictory accounts underscore the need for an independent investigation into the unfortunate shooting. PIB officers should consult with the LA/SPCA, which already works with NOPD regularly on animal issues, to ensure the investigation proceeds objectively and gains public confidence at every step. Zorrilla told Gambit Weekly that her organization is already investigating Jax's death, and she pledged to do so "objectively and with the full cooperation of NOPD."
Looking forward, Dorson says the Humane Society hopes to schedule a memorial service for Jax and to invite all interested NOPD officers to attend. "Jax's death, in a strange way, can heal some of the deeper wounds that continue to separate our citizens from one of our most important support systems our police force," Dorson told Gambit Weekly. "Knowing how gentle and kind Jax was, I believe that he would want that." We agree, and we hope that many NOPD officers, particularly those who are dog owners themselves (like Riley) or who have worked with NOPD K-9 officers, would want to attend such a memorial.
New Orleanians have seen far too much violence in recent years. We hope that the dialogue that follows Jax's death will lead to both a better trained NOPD as well as a more supportive and understanding community. In the aftermath of such loss, everyone needs to heal.