A Des Moines couple have filed a federal lawsuit against the city's Police Department after officers shot their dog two years ago.
To Deirdre and Charles Wright, their 4-year-old Newfoundland named Rosie was a member of the family — a big, hairy, doe-eyed friend and companion who “aided in their enjoyment of life, well-being, personal development and daily activities.”
To the trio of Des Moines police officers who confronted the barking bear-of-a-dog in the driveway of the Wrights’ home two years ago, she was something else entirely.
“He doesn’t want me to get very close,” one of the officers is heard saying on an audio recording from a patrol cruiser’s dashboard camera, the deep bark of the dog in the background.
The officers had responded to a report of a loose dog in the Des Moines neighborhood, phoned in by a neighbor who was concerned that the animal might get hurt. The Wrights were out of town. When police arrived, there was Rosie, all 115 pounds of her, woofing away.
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Over the next hour, police used a Taser on Rosie twice, chased her for blocks and ultimately shot the dog — four times — with an assault rifle in a stranger’s back yard.
Outrage over Rosie’s killing has carried on almost unabated since that Nov. 7, 2010, afternoon. There have been memorials and a vigil for the dog and her owners, attended not just by hundreds of sympathetic pet owners, but by the Des Moines mayor and police chief as well. Thousands have signed an online petition demanding the officers be punished.
The Wrights believe the officers were intent on shooting the dog almost from the outset. They filed a federal lawsuit Nov. 17 against Des Moines police, claiming their civil rights were violated when officers shot Rosie. Attorney Shannon Ragonesi of the law firm of Keating Bucklin & McCormack, which is representing the city, would not speak to the specifics of the lawsuit. However, she said the Police Department conducted a “thorough internal review” and concluded the officers’ actions were justified.
Two other reviews of animal-control policies — one by an outside agency and the other by an ad hoc committee appointed by the City Council — reached similar findings, save for a finding that the city needed guidelines for the use of Tasers on animals, Ragonesi said.
“Sweetness of temperament”
It was a Sunday, and there was no animal-control officer on duty, when police responded to Rosie’s neighborhood in the 26200 block of 16th Avenue South, according to police reports and the lawsuit. Officers concluded the dog lived at the address where she was spotted — she’d apparently knocked down a fence to get out of the enclosed backyard.
According to the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) website, Newfoundlands are large working dogs often used in cold-water rescue because of their thick coats. The AKC says the breed’s “sweet disposition makes him a good fit for families.” Though the dogs appear docile, they are active and require daily exercise. “Sweetness of temperament is the hallmark of the Newfoundland; this is the most important single characteristic of the breed,” the AKC says.
The conversation among the officers responding to the call was captured on dashboard-camera audio obtained by the Wrights’ attorney through the state Public Disclosure Act.
At one point, an officer produced a catchpole with a loop on one end, used to snare small animals from a safe distance. But because of Rosie’s size, they questioned whether it would work — even if they could figure out how to operate it.
And then there was this dilemma, posed by one of the officers: “Once we get him, what are we gonna do with him?”
An officer suggested using a Taser on her. Another thought he might be able to “choke her out.”
The audio recording indicates the officers were talking about shooting her within 10 minutes of arriving at the scene.
The only effort to identify her, according to the lawsuit, was that one of the officers photographed her and sent the snapshot to the city’s animal-control officer, who was off-duty and did not respond to the scene.
Animal-rights lawyer Adam Karp from Bellingham, who is representing the Wrights, alleges in the lawsuit that officers made no effort to contact the Wrights, who were out of town overnight, but who could have been reached through their alarm company or through pet-licensing information.
The number of an emergency contact — a niece whom the Wrights had asked to check on the dog while they were gone — was also available from the alarm company, the lawsuit alleges.
Rosie’s city pet license application also contained their contact information but was never checked, Karp said.
Dog “just sitting there”
According to witnesses quoted in the lawsuit, the dog was “just sitting there” when one of the officers used a Taser on her in the driveway of the Wrights’ home, sending her running from the yard. The officers followed in their cars.
“He doesn’t want to play,” one officer is heard commenting. About a minute later, another officer says, “I’ll shoot him. Let’s just go shoot him,” according to the lawsuit and dash-camera audio.
Meantime, another officer got close enough to Rosie to use a Taser on her a second time, firing through the car’s open passenger window. The dog scampered away, eventually finding her way into Lora Perry’s back yard, about four blocks away.
Perry, in an interview, said Rosie had apparently slipped into Perry’s fenced yard while she was parking her car and had been there for about 15 minutes, “just sniffing around,” when an officer arrived at the gate and asked if she’d seen a stray dog.
“I told him, ‘Yes,’ that she was here. He got on his radio and a few minutes later another officer arrived” carrying a rifle. Perry said the officers entered her yard, walking past a “No Trespassing” sign.
“One of them told me to get in the house, or something like that,” Perry said. “It was clear they were there to shoot her. She wasn’t doing anything. She was just sitting there.”
Perry said she had two children in the house when the officer opened fire on the dog.
“They were frightened,” she said. “And I was just livid. They didn’t ask me anything. The dog could have stayed in my backyard.”
The officers let her own dog out when they opened the gate to kill Rosie, Perry said.
After the first shot — which an autopsy later concluded shattered the dog’s leg — one of the officers is heard shouting “Nice!” The officer with the rifle fired three more times, according to the lawsuit and dash-camera video.
The Wrights returned home later that day unaware of what had happened to their dog. They frantically called friends and the police, looking for Rosie.
According to the lawsuit, the Des Moines police only acknowledged they killed her after Mr. Wright found a Taser dart on his lawn the next day and took it to the police station, seeking an explanation.
In the lawsuit, Karp alleges the officers not only failed to capture Rosie but acted inhumanely when they killed her. The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends a gunshot to an animal’s brain when an animal needs to be put down with a firearm. An autopsy performed by a veterinarian showed that none of the four bullets hit Rosie in the head.
Ragonesi, the city’s attorney, said Karp has adopted an “uncommon use” of the section of the civil-rights section of the U.S. Code, usually applied in cases in which people address illegal seizures in the form of police misconduct like excessive use of force or wrongful arrest.
But Karp said the Fourth Amendment guarantees that citizens shall be secure in their “persons and effects.”
“Rosie was an effect, and a special one that cannot be replaced,” he said.
There is legal precedent for civil-rights cases involving killing pets.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held in a 1994 case that police violated the rights of a Northern California family when officers shot the family dog. The family eventually received nearly $100,000.
A 1998 case out of San Jose, Calif., found that police violated the rights of members of the local chapter of the Hells Angels when they shot and killed three dogs while serving a search warrant during a murder investigation. Nearly $1 million was awarded to the chapter in a settlement.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org