Adam Arroyo was at work on June 3, 2013, when he heard the news. "Adam, I'm sorry," he recalled his landlord telling him. "They killed your dog."
Arroyo's landlord wasn't talking about burglars. "They" were the Buffalo, New York, police, and they had barged into Arroyo's apartment, torn through his belongings, and killed Cindy, his two-year-old pit bull, during a botched raid.
When he got home, Arroyo said, "it looked like a tornado hit. My dog was missing, and there were bullet holes and blood all over the walls."
Police later said Cindy had been "aggressive." But Arroyo, a 30-year-old Iraq War veteran, insists the dog was chained when he left for work that day. It also turned out that police may have hit the wrong apartment — Arroyo believes they were targeting a neighbor who allegedly sold illicit drugs.
"That dog, everywhere I went, she wanted to go with me. Those police, they don't know what they did."
Arroyo's situation is not unique. The Buffalo Police Department shot 92 dogs between January 2011 and September 2014, 73 of which died from their wounds, according to a November story from local news station WGRZ. Twenty-six of those shootings were the work of one officer — and nearly all of those dogs died. For many critics, including Arroyo, these shootings are a symptom of a larger problem in law enforcement.
"These police officers think they're above the law," Arroyo said.
Since the summer of 2014, a national discussion about the way officers use force on the job and whom they use it against has dominated the news, sparked by the police killings of several unarmed black men — long a deep concern among civil rights activists. The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in Staten Island, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland at the hands of local police have sparked a roiling, emotional debate about the latitude police are given to take lives even when it is later discovered that a situation did not warrant it. Police officers say this latitude is essential for their safety and the ability to perform their jobs effectively.
This human toll is the primary concern in protesting a system that gives law enforcement what many believe is too much freedom to take lives and property. But for years, one of the ways this multilayered story has played out is in the killing of dogs by police.
Police kill an untold number of dogs a year
It's hard to know how many dogs are shot by police — we don't even have a firm idea of how many people are shot by police. According to a 2011 report presented to the US Department of Justice, a majority of shootings in most of the surveyed police departments involve animals, particularly dogs. And based on media reports, hundreds of dogs are shot by police each year.
And it's not just in Buffalo. Police in Milwaukee killed roughly 48 dogs per year between 2000 and 2008, according to the Associated Press. Officers in southwest Florida shot 111 dogs between 2009 and 2012, the News-Press found. In metro Atlanta, according to a WSB-TV investigation, police were responsible for the deaths of nearly 100 dogs from 2010 to 2012. And Chicago police killed approximately 90 dogs per year between 2008 and 2013, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The Washington Post's Radley Balko has written extensively about police shooting dogs — including dogs that are leashed and unleashed, puppies and seniors, and big and small dogs, with breeds ranging from Chihuahuas to Labradors. The topic has a blog, Facebook page, and subreddit dedicated to it. Reports from advocates or people who lost their dogs at the hands of police flow into these repositories on a daily basis. Here are a few examples:
- According to an email sent to the blog Dogs That Cops Killed, Megan Hood's dog, Blossom, was killed by police in Jonesboro, Texas. But Hood said she wasn't told about the police shooting until later, after a private investigator contacted her. Instead, she said, the city government initially told her that her dog had been hit by a car and that the Texas Department of Transportation had incinerated the body.
- Sean Kendall got a call one day that Salt Lake City police had entered his yard and killed his Weimaraner, Geist. Police officers said they were investigating a missing-child report and the dog acted aggressively, but Kendall said officers could have backed out of the yard and closed the gate to protect themselves.
- In one case caught on a body camera, a police officer in North Texas called a dog over to him and then shot it multiple times. The officer claimed the dog showed signs of aggression, but that is not visible in the available footage.
- Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies on December 5 shot and killed a family's pregnant pit bull, even though they went through a gate with a "beware of dog" sign, reported CBS Los Angeles. The dog's owner said the dog never attacked the deputies and that the deputies either hit the wrong home or were responding to a prank call.
Arroyo, now a manager at a cleaning company and a member of the National Guard, said he still mourns Cindy. He moved out of his previous apartment, which was stained with bad memories and Cindy's blood, and currently lives with his uncle. He said he feels like no one is being held accountable for the shooting.
For Arroyo, Cindy's friendship was a way to cope with his loneliness after serving in Iraq. Arroyo bought Cindy from someone who intended to put her in dogfights. His initial goal was to save her, but he quickly fell in love with the dog.
"I feel like I rescued her," Arroyo said. "But at the same time, she rescued me."
Buffalo officials didn't respond to multiple inquiries about an internal investigation into Arroyo's case. They previously refused to provide an update to WGRZ.
"Officers generally shoot to live. We don't shoot to kill," Richards said. "It goes to the officer's safety and the safety of other people."
When can police shoot dogs?
Cynthia Bathurst, cofounder and director of the animal advocacy group Safe Humane Chicago, said these dog killings do not follow noticeable patterns. She said she's heard of them happening in domestic dispute cases, SWAT raids, and even traffic stops in which a dog is in the car.
Almost all of these shootings were later found to be justified. But animal activists believe part of the issue is that cops are allowed, under law and department policy, to use deadly force too easily. If an officer merely thinks a dog is going to bite or attack him, he's allowed to shoot — even if a dog doesn't pose a threat to the life of the officer or others. And since dogs are considered property under most state laws, the legal standards of probable cause and objectively reasonable belief that apply to human shootings don't apply to dogs and other pets.
Based on media reports, hundreds of dogs are shot by police each year
Even an unjustified shooting likely won't land a police officer in jail or prison. But dog owners can and do resort to civil lawsuits to claim damages for shootings, under the argument that killing a dog unlawfully is akin to illegally seizing or destroying property. There have been reports of proposed settlements as high as $10,000 in Salt Lake City; $30,000 in Riverside, California; and even $225,000 in Minneapolis, in a case that involved two dead dogs.
Arroyo is now pursuing a federal lawsuit against the city of Buffalo for the raid and his dog's death. He said the city offered him $1,000, which he decided wasn't enough. But he also insisted the lawsuit has nothing to do with money. He said his concern is holding the city and police accountable for their mistake to ensure something like this happens again — and that the only way to do that may be to force a big payout. His preference would be for states to pass laws — Arroyo called it Cindy's Law — that ensure police are better trained to deal with dogs.
"To me, it's not about the money," he said. "I'm not the only person going through this."
Advocates want better police training and standards
The Buffalo Police Department doesn't train for encounters with dogs, WGRZ reported. Just two states — Colorado and Illinois — require such training, said Bathurst, although police departments in other states might do so voluntarily or under local laws. Reformers' hope is to get more cities, states, and police departments to adopt similar standards.
Arroyo said he believes it's only a matter of time until things change. "This is going to break," he said. "There's too many incidents for nothing to happen."
One barrier to change, Bathurst said, is that police overestimate the threat posed by dogs. The number of reported dog bites has decreased by as much as 75 to 90 percent, depending on the city, since the 1970s, according to data compiled by the National Canine Research Council (NCRC). And dog bite fatalities are extremely rare, resulting in 32 deaths in 2011, NCRC reported.
"We don't want to understate the importance of decreasing this number [of fatal dog bites]," Bathurst said. "But they are, in general, minor."
The National Canine Research Council and Safe Humane Chicago developed a series of videos that educate police officers on how to read different breeds' body language, ways to get out of a situation without resorting to force, and tools — such as Tasers, batons, fire extinguishers, and chemical sprays — that can be used to stop a dog without shooting.
At the very least, animal proponents say police departments should begin to better track their encounters with dogs. Currently, federal and state data on shootings is spotty and scant.
Dog shootings further distrust between communities and police
"When [these shootings] occur, they get more and more attention, and there's more and more concern in the community," said NCRC spokesperson Janis Bradley. "It leads to dog owners mistrusting the police, which is bad for everybody — it's bad for the police, bad for the community, and, of course, bad for the dog."
But a legal argument does nothing to repair community mistrust when police actions make people feel the law is either not on their side or only on the side of a chosen few. Police are also found to be legally justified nearly every time they kill a person, and yet the Pew Research Center found that about 61 percent of all Americans — and 93 percent of black Americans — score police "only fair" or "poor" on "using the right amount of force for each situation."
For Arroyo, there is little police could do to give him back what he lost.
"She was my best friend. That dog, everywhere I went, she wanted to go with me. It breaks my heart," Arroyo said. "Those police, they don't know what they did."