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Are police officers going too far using deadly force against dogs?

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Are police officers going too far using deadly force against dogs?

By Darcy Spears. CREATED Nov 21, 2013

Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- Shoot first, ask questions later. It's a scenario police are often accused of. But what if the victim can't talk because it's an animal?

Contact 13's Darcy Spears investigates how far is too far when cops use deadly force against dogs.

January 6, 2013: A backyard with a "Beware of Dog" sign. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officers responding to a report of gunfire in the area enter the yard without permission. Victor Patino's dog, Bubba, reacts. And police shoot and kill him.

"I know my dog and I know he didn't attack him," Patino said the night it happened. "The guy, in my mind.. the guy saw him as an easy kill and he did it. It's as simple as that."

February 2009: From their chopper, Metro detects an infrared heat signature in Yurisai Delatorre's backyard. They think it's a suspect, but it's Yurisai's dog, Coco who chased officers and was shot and killed by police.

At the time of the incident, LVMPD Officer Bill Cassell told Action News, "If this had not been a large, angry animal capable of severely injuring the officer, it's possible the officer would have let the dog bite him and keep going."

And then, there's the case of Freckles.

"He was an awesome dog," says Sarah Rose Hecht.  "He was my everything. He was my confidant. He was my best friend."

Sarah Rose got Freckles when she was 15.

"I don't think I would be the person I am today without him," she says, wiping away tears.

Her brother called her on the evening of May 21, while she was at work. 

"Saying an officer had run my dog over and that he's passing away on the front yard."

They raced to the vet to try to save his life, but it was too late.

"So at that time, I asked her if I could be with him while we put him to sleep.  And that was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," Sarah Rose says, barely able to get the words out.

When the incident with Freckles happened, Metro told Action News the dog had gotten out and was moving to attack some neighborhood children. The officer didn't want to use his gun around the kids, so he used his car instead.

Metro says they encounter dogs every day and almost always deal with them successfully where no one gets hurt. 

In the past three years, they've used force against 18 dogs.  In 2011, one died.  In 2012, four--including a Metro K-9 shot by a Metro officer.  This year, use of force has resulted in three dogs being killed.

Metro provided several incident reports where dogs were shot--mostly because they charged officers.

None of them include the cases we're profiling because--like Freckles--they're part of Metro's Use of Force review process, which they say is confidential.

As of last Spring, Former Assistant Sheriff Ted Moody revamped that process to include cases involving animals.

"When an officer fires a weapon," Moody explains, "we think that is a significant event in the career of that officer and we want to look at the circumstances under which that occurred very, very carefully.  Because today it's an animal, tomorrow maybe it's a human being."

"So many of these cases are so preventable," says Gina Greisen with Nevada Voters for Animals.

Greisen is tracking cases across the country where police kill pets.

"It's such a negative reflection on the department when they do this."

She's pushing to hold cops more accountable and require better training in recognizing typical dog behavior.

"So if we could have officers understand that behavior, perhaps they wouldn't shoot a dog because a dog is running up to an officer."

Henderson Police Spokesperson Keith Paul says, "The officers do go through training in the academy on how to deal with animals.  They try very hard to avoid the animals.  They even have catch poles in most of the supervisors' cars and when the opportunity arises, you hope to be able to call Animal Control to take care of the animals."

But take this case from September, 2011, where Henderson Police shot a dog over a can of Four Loko.

According to the incident report, they were responding to a panhandling call involving two men in the area of St. Rose and Eastern. They knew there was a dog--with a collar and leash--in a nearby drainage area.

But instead of allowing one of the men to secure the dog, an officer went down into the drainage ditch to retrieve a can of Four Loko for evidence that the men were drinking in public. 

When the cop grabbed the can, he says the dog growled and lunged, so the officer opened fire, shooting the dog in the shoulder.

Keith Paul wouldn't answer questions about the case. In general, he says, "Once you have someone in custody, you cannot allow them to go out of custody to go take care of their animal."

In this case, police didn't even complete the arrest, as the incident report says, "in the interest of justice and as a sign of good will" to the dog owner.

Henderson Police could only find two reports where they used force against dogs in the last five years.

North Las Vegas police have killed seven dogs this year alone. 

Friday on Action News at 6, we'll look at some of those cases as well as a proposed new law governing how cops deal with animals.

Darcy Spears

Darcy Spears

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Darcy Spears is currently the Chief Investigative Reporter for Action News.