Court swats away excessive force claim in police shooting of pit bulls

A federal appeals court earlier this month upheld a lower court’s ruling that police acted within the law when they shot a pair of pit bulls during a search warrant in Battle Creek, Michigan.

The court held the shooting of their pets, which a three-judge panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found reasonable for officer safety, had not violated the dog owners’ rights.

The pet owners, Mark and Cheryl Brown, argued their mixed breed pit bulls, 97-pound Isis and 53-pound Baby Girl, were family members that were shot without need during a 2013 raid on their residence in search of a known drug dealer who was not there at the time. They also claimed a police special weapons team had used excessive force by ramming open a locked door after Mark Brown had offered to unlock it with a key.

During the afternoon raid, in which the home was occupied by the dogs, Mark Brown, who treated the animals as being akin to his children, told officers while outside the residence, “Don’t shoot my kids.”

According to court documents, Isis was shot in the head with a less lethal round when he moved toward officers near the entrance of the home then was killed by two fatal shots after he kept barking. Baby Girl was shot in the basement twice after she barked at officers then, when she was found bleeding behind a furnace, was killed by a final shot from an officer who “didn’t want to see it suffer.”

The raid turned up only a small amount of medical marijuana for which Mark Brown had a license for and police made no arrests at the home.

In their lawsuit, which was on an appeal from a 2015 rejection from a lower court, the Browns held Battle Creek Police officers had a tally system in place to keep track of how many dogs they had shot on the job. One officer who took part in the raid advised in his deposition to the court that it was “very common” that officers would talk about how many animals they had shot but that he could not name them all because “there were so many of them just  bragging about it.”

The court dismissed the claim by holding there was no evidence the police department’s supervisory personnel sanctioned such a tally system or even knew of its existence and that the animal owners could only provide anecdotal evidence of unconstitutional dog shootings by Battle Creek officers.

“Unsubstantiated testimony from a few officers generally describing the tally system while not providing details about the number of officers participating in it or the number of shootings tallied is neither persuasive nor meaningful,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay for a majority that included Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore and District Judge Joseph M. Hood.

Clay and Moore are appointments from President Bill Clinton while Hood came to the bench via a nomination from President George H. W. Bush.