Are We Animal Rights Activists?

In the United States, Animal Rights Activism is an emotionally charged, controversial and complex topic. It is a label that encompasses a diverse array of movements, groups and philosophies that often disagree with one another and almost always disagree with what is commonly thought of as the "mainstream" thinking about animals and how they ought to be treated. The range of modern Animal Rights Activism is vast: traversing the Utilitarianism of Peter Singer and his concerns about "speciesm", the often shocking public relations campaigns of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, vegans and vegatarians, the sober complaints of the staid anti-Vivesectionist societies and even the grievances of the Animal Libertion Front, who the Federal Government have now officially labeled as a "terrorist" organization. Not all Animals Rights Activists are in the minority in their opinions, however. Some groups, like the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are important parts of municipal politics and even law enforcement - providing a consultant role in training police and even in investigations of animal abuse. Still others, like the Sierra Club, are tried and true pillars of partisan politics, well within the mainstream thinking of members of the Old New Left.

A Totally Normal PETA CommercialMainstream politics?

While the volunteers who continue to make the Puppycide Database Project possible come from all walks of life and have a diverse array of different political beliefs, the PuppycideDB Project itself doesn't fit neatly into or in between any of the groups outlined above. In this article we will briefly discuss why we don't consider ourselves Animal Rights Activists in our capacity as PuppycideDB volunteers (even though some of us do consider ourselves Animal Rights Activists outside of our work at the PuppycideDB Project). Finally, we will consider a more appropriate framework for Project and our organization's positions toward animals.

The Puppycide Database Project is first and foremost a research organization. Our mission is to record every incident of police violence toward animals and make that information available to journalists, researchers and the public at large. Our analysis of the research we collect is restricted to observations that can be objectively and empirically verified. What this means is that the Puppycide Database Project does not engage in protests or marches. We do not issue boycotts. The Puppycide Database Project does not even, and this last fact may be surprising, issue calls for specific reforms, legislation or policy implementations based on our own research!

The distinction between research and activism is critical. The Puppycide Database Project does not begin from a conclusion about violence, animal injuries or community policing and then work backwords to justify those conclusions by seeking out incidents to justify our positions. Further, we rightly dismiss organizations that engage in such practices (commonly referred to as "Push Polling").

When we engage in analysis of our research, we ask questions with answers that can be theoretically falsified, based on results that can be reproduced by any other group using similar methodology.

Let's explore a concrete example of a Puppycide Database Project research paper to understand this theoretical distinction in practice. Our first research analysis project explored the topic of injuries and deaths caused by dogs. While the data we reviewed did not immediately involve the police - we used CDC and emergency room statistics to find out how many people in the United States were killed and injured by dogs over the last 10-15 years - the concerns raised by our study are directly related to the animal use of force policies followed by police. Police shootings of animals are commonly justified, when questioned by courts, review boards and the media, with officers citing what, at least in some cases, to be a reasonable concern: the officer in question was being attacked by a dog or feared he would be attacked by a dog, and such an attack would place that officer's life in danger.

Prior to 1985, police operating in nearly all 50 states of the US followed the so-called "any-felony" policy of the legal use of deadly force. Under the "any-felony" policy, police were authorized to use guns or any other means of deadly force to arrest a person suspected of committing any felony. Consider this example: an individual is suspected of forging a check, but is known conclusively to not possess a weapon of any kind and has no history of violence or other criminal record. Should such an individual attempt to flee the police upon arrest, under the "any-felony" policy, the police could shoot that individual in the back and such a shooting would be legally justified. In fact, such shootings, where police killed unarmed people suspected of non-violent felonies, were not only common prior to 1985, they meritted little controversy, at least in the courts that approved their practice.

That changed in 1985 when the Supreme Court published their decision on the landmark case Tennessee v. Garner (471 U.S. 1). The court ruled that "deadly force may not be used unless it is necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others."

Warren Burger was Head Justice of the Supreme Court during the Garner decision Warren Burger was the Head Justice of the Supreme Court during the Tennessee v. Garner decision

The court's decision had wide reaching implications for law enforcement across the country: the use of force policies that hundreds of thousands of police had been trained to follow must be updated in order to ensure that acts of police violence complied with this new reading of the law. While individual police departments have occasionally coped with the measures in unique ways, one majority trend has been the implementation of a "Use of Force Continuum" policy (also referred to as "Linear Use of Force Continuum).

In a "Use of Force Continuum" policy, the use of force implemented by police must bear a direct relationship to the use of force initiated or threatened by the subject. The term "Continuum" is used to indicate that police force responses correspond to a sliding scale, starting with verbal commands and escalating through the use of open handed fighting, to the use of so-called "intermediate weapons" like batons, mace and tasers, to the final usage of deadly force using a firearm or other deadly force. In a Use of Force Continuum policy, police continue to reserve the right to use deadly force, but it must be "objectively reasonable" for the officer to conclude one of the following factors to be true:

  • The subject of lethal force must present an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to either the police or a member of the public

  • If the subject of lethal force is attempting to escape arrest and the officer has probable cause to believe has committed a violent felony crime, that escape would represent an "imminent threat to human life"

Deadly force, in this framework, is reserved for circumstances in which an immediate or imminently threat exists to the officer's life or to the life of a member of the public.

If we believe that a physical attack by a dog is indeed a life-threatening situation, then an officer who responds to such an attack with deadly force would be justified in doing so under the "Use of Force Continuum" doctrine, as well as the Supreme Court decision laid out in Tennessee v. Garner. The legal justification for Puppycide thus rests upon whether it is "objectively reasonable" to believe a dog could present an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to either the police or a member of the public.

Let's pause to consider, then, the topics we decided to explore and which we decided to ignore in our research. By reviewing the complete set of deaths and injuries caused by dogs, we can determine a number of things relevant to the police use of force. Consider the following:

  • If we find that dogs have killed either police officers or people within the age groups that include police officers, or that dogs have caused "serious bodily injury" to police officers or people within the age groups that include police officers, than we can determine that it is at least possible for an officer's claim of acting in self defense when killing a dog has legal merit

  • Conversely, if we find no fatalities or serious bodily injuries caused by dogs among police or those within their age groups, we must conclude that an officer's claim of acting in self defense when killing a dog has no legal merit, because such a fear would not be "objectively reasonable"

  • If we find that dogs have killed or caused serious bodily injury to members of any age group, we can conclude that it is at least possible for an officer's claim of acting in defense of a member of the public when killing a dog has legal merit

  • If we find any age groups in which dogs have caused no deaths or serious bodily injury, it may be possible to conclude that an officer's claim of acting in defense of a member of the public when killing a dog has no legal merit, if the member of the public that is threatened is part of an age group that has not been killed or seriously injured by dogs

Readers are welcome to review our complete report and findings, along with some very helpful graphs and charts breaking down our results by a variety of different factors (we look at the number of fatalities by state as well as age, for example) by following this link.

Here is a quick summary of what we found:

  • Deaths caused by dogs in the US are extremely rare: between 20 and 30 people die every year from dog attacks, out of a total population of over 300 million (a rate of 0.01091 deaths per 100,000). To put that into perspective, in 2012 34 people died from dog attacks, while 53,826 people died from the Flu.

  • The vast majority of deaths were from two age groups: Newborns and infants through age four and people older than age 55. Individuals in these two risk groups accounted for 28% of the population and 70% of the fatalities from dog bites.

  • There is one age groups for which there is a 0% chance of death from dog attacks: those of ages 15 to 34.

  • Outside of new borns and the elderly, but including groups like toddlers, did little to increase the risk of death. Those outside the two risk groups listed above represented 72% of the population while accounting for only 30% of canine related fatalities.

Dog bit fatalities by age group Dog bit fatalities by age group

We can see, then, that our study is of serious importance when viewed alongside current legal precedents concerning the police's rights to kill dogs. There is no "objectively reasonable" expectation that a dog would be able to kill a teenager older than 14, or a cop younger than 55. Fears of serious injury, however, are possible across all age groups - but still exceedingly rare, and dependent upon a number of factors (that tend to not exist in almost all dog shootings - for example, ferality, and the attack being caused by a pack of dogs rather than a single dog).

On the other hand, our study avoided a number of concerns that have a similar, but different importance to the topic. The Puppycide Database Project Report on Canine Morbidity includes no consideration for any of the following:

  • Is current Supreme Court precedent concerning Use of Force justified?

  • How should police Use of Force policies or training be changed in light of our research?

  • Are police deliberately exagerating the threat posed by dogs out of malice or as the result of a legitimate misunderstanding of dog behavior and dangerousness?

Notice the difference between those questions - which represent value judgements - and the questions that were answered by the study:

  • How many, and what kinds of people are killed and injured by dogs?

  • In order for a belief that a dog attack may result in serious injury or death to be "objectively reasonable" (as described by Tennessee v. Garner), what criteria must be met?

  • What criteria would make such a belief un-"reasonable"?

The distinction should be apparent. Instead of deciding which policies ought to be put into place, our research explores what the consequences of current policy are and if current policy meets verifiable legal standards.

Even outlining the possible consequences of model legislation would be seriously pushing the boundaries of our mission, due to the unscientific nature of such "proscriptive" analysis. We can't see the future, nor do we aim to. We do aim to remember the past.

While as an organization the Puppycide Database Project seeks to avoid moral pronouncements, our very purpose precludes a number of value judgements. At the core of these is the notion that we all deserve access to honest information about acts of violence committed in our community.

The idea that violence demands transparency is itself the result of a whole host of complex assumptions; ideas about self government, civil rights, self-determination and freedom of the press. One of the main reasons why the Puppycide Database Project is focused on American Puppycide, despite the huge problems with state-sanctioned animal killings faced in countires like Romania and China, is so that shared opinions on this complex array of assumptions can be assumed among our volunteers and users. While focused on the US, we can take for granted that democracy is a preferable form of government, that a free press is a desirable institution to monitor that government, and that people should be be free from interference by that government without evidence of a crime.

Through our work with the Puppycide Database Project we have found that individuals with all manner of opinions about animal rights in general, and who disagree about who ought to be president or what America ought to be doing abroad, agree with our demand for transparency in the face of violence. Republicans and Democrats, libertarians and socialists, veterans and pacifists - all have concerns about police committing acts of violence against animals and the degrading relationship between the police and the public such incidents represent, if not for different reasons.

The ultimate success or failure of the Puppycide Database Project depends upon the continued growth of just such a consensus.

References

  1. National Institute of Justice. Officer Performance and Safety. "The Use-of-Force Continuum". August 4, 2009.
  2. Alpert, Geoffrey P. and Dunham, Roger G. Cambridge University Press. "Understanding Police Use of Force: Officers, Suspects, and Reciprocity". 2004.
  3. Los Angeles Police Department. Employee Manual Volume 1: Policy. "Employee - Public Contact". 1st Quart, 2014.
  4. Puppycide Database Project. Dog Bite Injuries and Fatalities in the United States: 15 Years of Records Decoded. November, 2014.
  5. U.S. Department of Justice, Community Relations Service. Police Use of Excessive Force: A Conciliation Handbook for the Police and the Community. "Policies on Use of Force". June, 2009.
  6. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Force. General Order. "Use of Force Policy, Use of Force Procedure". January 29, 2014.
  7. Prager, Mike. The Spokesman-Review. "Spokane police trained to use minimum force". November 8, 1987.