BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (WOOD) — A federal appeals court says three officers who shot and killed a pair of dogs during a house search in Battle Creek acted “reasonably.”
The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that officers Jeffrey Case, Christof Klein and Damon Young, as well as the Battle Creek Police Department, did not violate the Constitutional rights of Mark and Cheryl Brown during the April 2013 search.
The court says Mark and Cheryl Brown were living in the basement of the Battle Creek home with their two dogs, both pit bulls. The home was owned by Cheryl Brown’s daughter, Danielle Nesbitt, who shared a child with Vincent Jones, who police believed was using the house to distribute drugs.
The court said Jones “posed a serious threat to the officers’ safety” given his criminal history, weapons, and gang affiliations.
According to court records, officers Klein and Young learned Jones had been arrested for possessing heroin as they headed to the home. However, the court ruled the raid was still high risk, since it was highly likely that other gang members may be in the area.
Before they arrived, the officers were also informed there was a dog in the backyard and a man at the home – Mark Brown. Brown testified he let the dogs out of the home on his lunch break and was on his way back to work when he was detained by police.
Officer Klein said a 97-pound dog was barking aggressively and lunged a few inches before he shot her. The wounded dog retreated to the bottom of the basement stairs, where it began barking again, court records say. Klein testified he fired two fatal shots at the dog because he did not feel they could safely clear the basement with the dogs down there.
When the officers got into the basement, they noticed the second dog, standing there barking at the officers. Officer Klein shot the 53-pound dog, which ran to the back corner of the basement, according to court records. Officer Young testified he shot her a second time, saying she moved out of the corner and in his direction. Officer Case said he found the dog bleeding from “numerous holes” and fired the fatal shot to put her out of her misery.
“There is no dispute that the shooting of Plaintiffs’ dogs were severe intrusions given the emotional attachment between a dog and an owner,” the court stated in the opinion. “On the other hand, insuring officer safety and preventing the destruction of evidence are particularly important governmental interests that the courts must strive to protect,” the court added, saying the dogs “posed imminent threat to the officers.”
The court said the Browns did not give admissible evidence “that would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict in their favor.”
The appeals court agreed with the Browns that BCPD and law enforcement nationwide did not have much of a policy or practice on how to treat dogs during a house search, beyond how they should “respond to resistance.”
However, the court said there is no credible history of needless killing of animals during searches in Battle Creek, and there was no evidence that the police department sanctioned or knew of an alleged tally system officers had for the animals they shot.
On Jan. 4, Battle Creek Police Chief Jim Blocker released this statement on the issue:
“On Dec. 19, a federal appellate panel of three judges wrote a unanimous, but controversial, opinion related to dogs, which upholds the work we do in the Battle Creek Police Department.
“In 2013, our highly-trained SWAT Team served a warrant to search for drugs and guns at the home of a known, violent gang member. Upon arrival, two large pit bulls guarded their home, aggressively blocking the officers’ initial protective sweep of the house, aiming to secure it against those who might destroy evidence or attack officers. The dogs posed an imminent threat and, unfortunately, were shot as a result.
“Many of our officers are dog owners and animal lovers themselves, so this isn’t a situation they want to face, and they rarely have to. The case was about what happens when aggressive guard dogs do their duty to guard a house, a role that pits them against officers doing a sometimes dangerous, but necessary, job. Two federal courts independently reviewed whether our officers acted reasonably by shooting the dogs in the 2013 case, and concluded that our actions were constitutional.
“Recent reports and comments regarding this case have created controversy and omitted some key facts. This was not a case about mere barking or keeping score. The case involved a high-risk warrant to search the home of a dangerous person, a small space where officers were immediately faced with two large, aggressive guard dogs, one of which lunged at the team lead.
“We are grateful the case got a full and fair hearing. It is from this case that we are reviewing our policy, tools, and techniques to best react to these high-risk encounters, when dogs might be present. I hope that everyone can hear the true facts, but we continue to be confident that our officers do their very best to perform their duties professionally, skillfully, and constitutionally, avoiding harm to dogs whenever possible, while still doing everything necessary to help protect and secure our community against violent and destructive activity.”