CHAMPAIGN - On Nov. 17, about 5:30 p.m., a Champaign police officer was called to southwest Champaign where two dogs were fighting. One, a family pet, was on a leash being walked by one of its owners. The other, a stray, was not.
Police reports obtained by The News-Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Officer Andre Davis' first response to the sparring dogs was to draw his service weapon and shoot at them.
His actions that night resulted in the death of the family pet, a bullet penetrating a nearby apartment, the wounding of the stray, and an offer by the city to pay the family of the dead dog for its loss.
It also prompted a change in the police department's use-of-force policy regarding vicious animals and will mean more training for Champaign police officers.
"There was no formalized training prior to this incident here at the Champaign Police Department," said Police Chief Anthony Cobb. "I'm sure there was some informal training that occurred."
Training not required
That Champaign police officers have no formal training dealing with vicious animals is not unusual. The Illinois Law Enforcement Standards Board, which governs training for all police in Illinois, does not require it.
The Urbana and Rantoul police departments have animal control officers on staff who have shared tips with patrol officers on how to deal with vicious animals, especially dogs.
Urbana Animal Control Officer Chelsea Angelo, who Cobb supervised when he was assistant chief of police in Urbana, routinely does in-house presentations for patrol officers on how to read and handle aggressive animals.
Rantoul Police Chief Paul Farber said his animal control officer and a patrol officer received training in 2010 and have shared the information informally with officers, but there is no formalized ongoing training. Sheriff Dan Walsh said neither do his deputies get any formal training on how to handle vicious animals.
The Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois offers a two-hour elective on animal abuse laws, dog behavior, and dangerous-dog laws for new recruits.
Director Mike Schlosser said the elective — which is in addition to the 480 hours of required training police recruits get in 12 weeks — has been offered at PTI since 2005. He said Champaign, Urbana and Rantoul police and Champaign County sheriff's office recruits have all taken the course.
"Illinois has the best laws in the U.S. regarding companion animals," said Ledy VanKavage, the course instructor and attorney who lobbied the Illinois General Assembly for some of those laws when she worked for the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
She suspects the success in getting bills passed is because animals are a bipartisan issue.
"Everyone wants safe, humane communities, and Republicans and Democrats both own pets. Once you get good laws passed, we need to train police officers to enforce them," said the Collinsville woman, who is now the senior legislative analyst for the Utah-based Best Friends Animal Society.
Coincidentally, VanKavage was in Champaign teaching her PTI course the week after Davis killed the 5-year-old chocolate Labrador belonging to Jake and Kathy Saathoff of Champaign.
The pit bull terrier fighting with the Labrador at the corner of John and Crescent streets was also hit by gunfire, according to a UI Small Animal Clinic report on its treatment. It was euthanized at the county's animal control department about 10 days later because no one claimed it.
The police reports say the dogs were fighting with each other and make no mention of any immediate threat to nearby humans, which included the Saathoffs' 18-year-old daughter, a man who came to her aid by trying to separate the dogs, and three juveniles — two girls and a boy.
VanKavage has since offered her services to Cobb, who is currently evaluating how best to train his officers to avoid a repeat of what happened to the Saathoffs' pet. Although Cobb doesn't have an exact timetable, he said training will begin "sooner as opposed to later."
And it will be part of a revamped approach to ongoing in-service training for officers that he calls a "common training day" where officers will receive updates on various subjects one day a month.
VanKavage said she's found in working with police around the country is that many departments have canine officers "but they (patrol officers) really don't know how to defuse situations involving dogs."
"I have talked to some lobbyists to get a state law passed mandating training. It's not really promising. But I think that might be changing, especially with more and more lawsuits being filed," she said.
VanKavage is a co-author of a 2011 publication for the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, titled "The Problem of Dog-Related Incidents and Encounters." The 46-page article covers a number of topics and includes examples of lawsuits from around the country involving police shootings of dogs.
VanKavage said probably the most notorious lawsuit stemmed from a January 1998 police raid in San Jose, Calif. Officers raided two homes owned by Hell's Angels motorcycle club members looking for evidence linking them to a murder. They shot and killed three dogs, resulting in payments to the dog owners by the city of San Jose and two other area departments totaling $1.8 million.
Courts denied city appeals based on violations of the Fourth Amendment protecting against unreasonable search and seizure. The courts said the officers failed to consider an alternative to isolating the dogs in their week-long planning before the raids and failed to use less-lethal weapons.
"Recruits love me when I talk about arresting people for animal abuse. Dog behavior, they're receptive to. But when I talk about, 'You shoot a dog and you might get sued,' they get really ticked off," VanKavage said.
Saathoff said he doesn't want to file a lawsuit against the city but wants the public to know the truth — that Davis fired at his dog without trying less-lethal force first. Saathoff said he's been contacted by the city's risk manager to see what amount of money his family would accept to avoid litigation.
"I told him as much damage as this officer has caused our family, how much money is that? We have a child (who witnessed the shooting) that will be scarred for life," said Saathoff, who said he had invested about $30,000 in the last five years in training the dog in water fowl retrieval.
Larry Krause, the city's risk manager, confirmed he contacted Saathoff at the direction of "the administration" and is currently doing research "to find the fair value" of the slain dog.
"I asked for a number and he (Saathoff) asked for my assistance," Krause said.
Although he did not want to discuss the specifics of Davis' actions with regard to the dogs, Cobb told The News-Gazette that if an animal control officer is unavailable, officers have their batons, pepper spray, and guns on their duty belts and fire extinguishers in their squad cars to deal with vicious animals.
Champaign does not have its own animal control officer but contracts with Champaign County for coverage. The county's animal control officer was summoned to the Nov. 17 shooting at John and Crescent after the dogs had been shot. He took the injured pit bull to the UI Small Animal Clinic while the Saathoffs dealt with their deceased dog.
According to Davis' report, he did not try any of the less-lethal means before firing his gun at the dogs. Champaign police do not carry Tasers, which VanKavage and Angelo said are probably the most effective means to disable a vicious dog.
But PTI's Schlosser said there are many things that go through an officer's mind when he decides to use his gun and starting with the least-lethal means may not always be an option.
"They have to make split-second decisions. Is there a threat of harm against the officer or another person, a threat to the safety of the general public? It's based on the officer's perception at that moment. What are the totality of the circumstances and what would a reasonable officer have done in that situation?
"The thing that a lot of people don't understand about use of force in general is ... that five different officers could have the same situation and have done five different things and each could have been reasonable. Things evolve quickly. Stuff happens fast and the courts recognize that," Schlosser said.
In a letter to Saathoff, Cobb said an internal investigation concluded that Davis' decision to discharge his weapon "was within policy."
"It is clear from our investigation that the officer did not intend to harm or kill your dog during the course of his response, but I recognize that does not diminish the outcome in this case," Cobb wrote, going on to "apologize for the fact that our actions resulted in the death of your dog."
Saathoff disputes that Davis didn't mean to harm or kill his dog and the police reports say Davis aimed his gun "at the large brown solid-colored dog, certain that it was the aggressive dog."
He fired seven shots in all, noting he made sure there were no people in the areas where he was firing before doing so. Three of the shots were aimed at the pit bull after the Labrador had fallen, including one fired at the dog as it ran in front of 702 Crescent Drive, Davis' report said.
One of the shots landed on the kitchen floor of a first-floor apartment at the Round Barn Manor at 2000 W. John St., damaging a wall and ceiling, according to the report of a different officer sent to investigate.
"The bullet had went (sic) through the exterior wall at an upward angle, hitting off the ceiling, and landing in (sic) the kitchen floor," the report said. "The bullet was partially flattened on one side indicating the bullet had hit a hard surface. The hole in the exterior wall was not round, but irregular shape indicating the bullet had the flattened surface prior to hitting the building. The upward trajectory of the hole and flattened half of the bullet indicated it may had (sic) struck the ground outside and ricocheted in to the apartment."
The woman told police she was in the laundry room when the bullet entered her apartment. She found it on the floor when she returned.
As a result of the dog shooting, Cobb said, the department's use-of-force policy will be revised "to specifically state that an aggressive animal must present an imminent threat to a human being before deadly force would be authorized."
"This makes if more difficult for the officer to discharge a gun by policy," said the chief. "This is forcing the officers to look at alternative methods."
Davis' actions are also being reviewed by Cobb to see if the 8-year officer should face any discipline over the shooting. Cobb said he doesn't know when he'll complete that. Davis remains on the street.
Training changes coming
Not only does Cobb plan to revamp the way his department's officers train, Schlosser said PTI is also going through a review of what recruits get taught that he hopes will be complete within the year.
Based on the response they've had from recruits over the elective VanKavage teaches on animal cruelty laws and animal behaviors, and the current climate, he said it's likely such training will become part of the institute's mandatory curriculum.
He doesn't necessarily agree that lawsuits are what prompt curriculum changes.
"It's based on what do we want police to know to keep them safe and to keep the public safe and how can we better deal with specific situations. We will likely be adding new and extra curricula on mental health, active shooters and rapid response. I can see additions in community policing. My research specialty is in better preparing recruits in racially and ethnically diverse communities. These things are societal issues," Schlosser said.
"Making the officer and people safer and making a better connection with what the community expects a modern police officer to be" is what they're aiming for, Schlosser said.