Saturday August 14, 2010

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As I’ve spent the past week or so delving into puppycide cases, in which the police kill a dog who presents no real threat (or who they have no valid reason for being around), one thing comes up whenever you see a discussion online, often from people who we’d otherwise agree with: With all of the injustice perpetrated by the police against people, why spend so much energy being outraged by what happens to a dog?

It’s not just that puppycide involves a police officer killing a creature whose innocence is usually above reproach, though that’s certainly part of it. A dog doesn’t have malice and isn’t guilty of anything – at worst in these cases, a dog is acting on its instinct. Often, they’re not even doing that. There’s no argument, most of the time, that the dog deserved it. People don’t usually get that benefit of the doubt in these discussions, so it’s a good example for rhetorical purposes.

But it’s not about rhetoric. It’s important because it illustrates why it’s such a mistake to put the faith that we do in police officers. We need them – you won’t find a defense attorney who insists that we’d be better off without cops. But we also want to believe that they’re generally going to use the best judgment, that they’re going to be good and fair and even-handed. And there’s no way to throw that in sharper relief than to point to an instance where a police officer kills a dog who poses no threat.

Follow that link. It’s about a 12 pound miniature dachshund who was killed for running after a police officer in the street. The officer says that the dog lunged at him. We’ll even take his word for it that that’s true. This is a dog about the size of a football.

The officer in question may not have been cruel. He may not have wanted to kill the dog because he hates dogs, or because he hated the dog’s owners. (He was in the neighborhood because he was serving a warrant on the family’s neighbors.) It was probably not done out of any sort of malice. The officer may have just used very poor judgment in making a snap decision. That’s about as generous a reading of the situation as you can come up with, unless you really believe that the little 12 pound bundle of terror was a threat to kill the officer.

But there’s a lot that you can extrapolate from that generous read. You can determine that police officers are subject to the same lapses in judgment as the rest of us. He may not like dogs – I know big, strong, brave men who are scared of dogs – and we can determine that a police officer is going to enter into a situation with his own biases shading his decision making process. You can determine that a police officer has a gun and some of the time, he is going to be inclined to use it when he doesn’t absolutely have to. You might be able to further theorize that, by giving a police officer a weapon, you’re suggesting to him that he should use it – that the act of having a gun means that he should be aware that he will be in situations where it will be necessary, and thus he’ll be on the lookout for those situations. And sometimes they’ll involve a wiener dog. Because, after all, the mailman runs into strange dogs all of the time. So does the FedEx guy and the pizza guy and the meter reader. But they don’t have guns, so they don’t kill the dogs.

So you can take away from that – even when viewing it in the best possible light – that a police officer isn’t a beacon of fairness, good judgment, even-handed decision-making, and stalwart goodness. He’s just a guy with a job. Even when you make every possible excuse for the officer’s actions, that’s what you’re left with.

And when you keep that in mind, and when you can help other people – juries, or voters who think “tough on crime” is the key to a safer society (we can assume prosecutors and judges, by and large, are out of reach on this one for now) – stay aware of the inherent fallibility of police officers as people, then you can start to pursue more justice in other cases.

We don’t do our police officers a service by treating them as infallible or above reproach. We don’t help them out when we make excuses for them or justify their more egregious actions or close our eyes and pretend that their abuses aren’t happening. Certainly, some cops want us to do that – but that’s not in anyone’s best interest. It’s not good for anyone to be given the benefit of the doubt in every case, because everyone’s inherently complicated, and every situation has multiple facets. And no one thrives under a lack of accountability.

But it can be hard not to make those excuses when you’ve got a police officer on one side, and you’ve got a guy who looks like the actors who play drug dealers on TV on the other. But when it’s a cop and a dog, it’s a little more possible to see what’s really going on.

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