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Video Simulators Part of Push to Train Police to Shoot Fewer Dogs, Limit Lawsuits

by Derek Gilna

Video simulators are now used by some police departments to train their officers in the use of non-lethal force. A 2005 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that dogs are property, whose killing constitutes an unreasonable seizure and a violation of the Fourth Amendment, held that their owners must be compensated for their unjustified killing. This has resulted in some million dollar payouts, an issue previously covered in Criminal Legal News. 

One of those video devices, also known as VirTra use-of-force simulator, uses a large video screen to create the image of an aggressive, barking dog in a residential back yard, which approaches two deputies. One officer reaches for her pepper spray, while the other unholsters his laser “handgun,” in case the spray is ineffective, but the spray does its job, the dog retreats, and the screen goes blank.

This training, currently used in Harford County, Maryland, is part of a conscious effort by many police departments to change decades of training that seemed to encourage officers to shoot dogs they encounter in even mildly confrontational situations. The U.S. Justice Department in 2012 estimated that perhaps as many as 10,000 dogs are shot annually by police nationwide.

The use of similar simulators in police training is not unique, but the use of them to change attitudes about confrontations with dogs is. It is a practice that has been strongly encouraged by the National Sheriffs’ Association (“NSA”), a nonprofit organization that recognizes that police departments have a problem with lack of training for confrontations with dogs. 

According to NSA spokesman and executive director John Thompson, a retired police officer said, “I’m a perfect example. I would have just shot a dog if he came at me biting and barking and snapping. It’s just what we did. It was taught to us. You neutralize the problem. It was an acceptable practice in the older days and still seems to be across the country in many agencies.”

According to Thompson, his organization is working with the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services to develop a course of study for police officers to deal with canine confrontations. “We identified that this was a problem and created this training so we could keep officers safe, pets safe, agencies from paying out multi-million dollar lawsuits, and honestly, so we can keep the relationship between police and community a whole lot better, because it’s just rampant,” he said. “Every day you hear of an officer shooting a dog. It’s not because they’re crazy, warmongering people who want to shoot a dog, it’s just they’ve never been trained or told different.”

It’s in police departments’ financial interest to change their ways. Detroit settled a dog-shooting case for $225,000, a Maryland family was paid $1.26 million in a similar case, and San Jose paid $1 million. Clearly, any additional training that might eliminate unnecessary killing of dogs would go a long way to reduce this expense and eliminate some of the antagonism between the police and dog owners. 



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