Earlier this year a powerful short film titled "Just a Dog" premiered at the Hot Docs film festival. The film, directed by filmmaker Andrea Scott, is a compelling illustration of the devastating impact of police violence toward pets. You can view "Just a Dog" for free right here:
"Just a Dog" focuses on the story Glenn Harris his daughter K. Harris and one of their family dogs, a Saint Bernard named Seven.
Seven was killed by Hartford police officers John O'Hare and Anthony Pia in 2006 as the officers performed a warrantless search of the Harris property. O'Hare and Pia shot Seven as then 12-year-old K. Harris looked on and begged them not to hurt her dog.
The title of the film was taken from a police radio conversation in the immediate aftermath of Seven's shooting. One officer asks:
"Have you got anybody hit?"
Another officer (its unclear whether this is O'Hare, Pia or another officer who responded to the scene after the shooting) replies:
"Negative, negative. Just a dog.
Here at Puppycide Database Project our goal is to identify trends within the phenomenon of police violence toward animals. We focus on numbers: the number of animals killed, the number of bystanders shot, the number of lawsuits acquitted, the number of settlement dollars paid out. We tend to avoid discussion consequences of police violence that may exist but are more difficult or impossible to quantify: how the killing of pets disrupts the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they are tasked with serving and protecting, how that disruption reinforces a siege mentality among police (often referred to as the "War on Cops") as well as the view among some communities that police are an occupying paramilitary force, how the lack of consequences for even the most egregious "puppycides" by police despite numerous examples of lengthy prison sentences (including life imprisonment) for 'civilians' and even children who shoot dogs could be indicative of a breakdown in the rule of law and the principle of equality before the law on which it depends or the psychological damage to children when they watch police kill their dog (a shockingly regular if un-reported occurrence when 1-in-5 police shootings of animals occurs with a child either within the line of fire or immediate vicinity when police open fire). The fact we are unable to count these phenomenon accurately does not mean they do not exist, or that they are unworthy of discussion or careful consideration.
"Just a Dog" tells the Harris family story through a series of interviews with Glenn Harris, his daughter K., and their attorney Jon Schoenhorn. Each of the interviews is skillfully conducted and edited; it is impossible to watch the film without a visceral reaction, regardless of what your opinion on puppycide may be.
However, it is the interviews with K. Harris (who 8 years after Seven's killing is now a young woman) and the moments with Glenn Harris where he speaks about his daughter that are the most touching. Through the course of the few minutes of interviews with her included in the film, K. acutely portrays how a single day of shocking and inexplicable violence changed the course of her life:
"That day never goes away. It's like ... I can't really escape it, no matter how hard I try."
K.'s grief and the guilt that continues to plague her is instantly recognizable to those who have lost a loved one:
"I should've done something, anything, to stop that bullet from hitting him. I should have done anything I possibly could and I did absolutely nothing. I just stood there ... I just stood there."
Keep in mind what K. is describing here. At the scene, she was a 12 year old girl confronted by a pair of adult, armed police officers. In this quote it very much comes across as though K. is blaming herself for Seven's death because she did not put herself into the line of fire. K.'s overwhelming grief is immediately followed in the film by the "Just a dog" radio conversation that provides the name of the film. The juxtaposition between the young woman's willingness to sacrifice herself for her best friend and the officer's apparently uncaring dismissal of the importance of the killing of Seven is stark and emotionally devastating.
Later, K. would describe how her view of law enforcement hardened in the wake of the killing. In a few breaths, K. succinctly summarizes the relationship between puppycide and the larger debate surrounding law enforcement use of force as well as how the routing shooting of pets destroys the relationship between police and the community:
"I'd rather die than call 9-11. That's how I feel about police. I have no trust for them, I have no respect for them ... I realize not all of them are the same, but with everything going on it's kindof hard to be convinced that, yeah, they're on my side. [K. starts counting off on her fingers] You took my best friend, you're killing black people ... I mean, like, if you can't work with a dog how do we expect you to work with people?"
Hartford PD would later justify their actions by claiming a confidential informant (a member of a local street gang) provided a "tip" that a stolen firearm had been stashed somewhere in the Harris' neighborhood. The police never claimed that the Harris' were accused of any wrongdoing or even that they had any information pointing specifically to the Harris property. Instead, Hartford PD performed warrantless searches of multiple properties throughout the neighborhood. In court, Hartford lawyers argued that the 4th amendment did not apply to the Harris home or their neighbors because their yards were too small and as a result had "no expectation of privacy".
The Glenn and K. Harris sued O'Hare, Pia and the City of Hartford, alleging that the warrantless search and corresponding killing of Seven violated their Fourth Amendment rights. Although their first lawsuit failed, the Harris family won their appeal before the Second Circuit. Glenn Harris was baffled by the initial failure of their lawsuit before the lower courts, a trial decision handed down by a jury:
"I can't comprehend [the first court decision]. If the law says that they violated my Fourth Amendment rights, how can a jury, in turn, side with the police?
Its an excellent question.
None of the facts of the case were in debate. There was no warrant. Not even the police had accused either Ms. or Mr Harris of any wrong doing. The little girl was there in the yard, playing with her dog, right until O'Hare and Pia raided the property and killed Seven.
The issue at question was not the facts, but the principle of whether the police can enter a home owner's property without a warrant or announcing themselves and kill that home owner's dog with impunity. This was not a scenario, made ever-present in the minds of the public by shows like Law & Order, where a ne'er-do-well escaped justice through a "loop-hole". Is it so outrageous to require police officers to seek a warrant prior to searching someone's home? Is it so outrageous to require police officers to provide compensation when during the course of an illegal search they destroy someone's property - when during the course of an illegal search they kill a little girl's best friend?
Glenn Harris believes that it was race that determined the lower court's decision:
"Y'know, they say 'Trust in the System' but the system fails black people all the time."
That very well may be the case; racism is as difficult - perhaps impossible - to quantify as anything. Perhaps it wasn't racism but a growing authoritarianism - a willingness to defer to law enforcement even in situations were such deferment conflicts with both the law itself and our normative sense of justice - that lead the jury to decide that what little the courts could do to "make whole" the Harris family is simply too much to ask. Perhaps it was both, or perhaps it was something else. Perhaps this isn't the sort of question that has an answer.
Upon reflection, what happened to K. Harris and her dog Seven that day forces us to confront many such questions. Although Puppycide Database Project must focus on the questions that do have answers - the numbers - it does not mean that those impossible questions are not important. "Just a Dog" can provide viewers with context to the numbers provided by Puppycide Database Project and similar efforts. Behind each number was a living, breathing person; behind many of the numbers is a family like the Harris family, and behind too many of those numbers is a child like K.