Chasing a fugitive sex offender out of a north Minneapolis house on a March evening, police found two threatening pit bulls coming at them. A Minneapolis officer opened fire, and a bullet hit another officer in the leg by mistake.
The wounded officer was not seriously injured. Yet the shooting became the latest example of what can go wrong when officers shoot at dogs. The tactic has led to lawsuits, a melee and unintended injuries in recent years.
Minneapolis police shot and killed 12 dogs last year, and park police shot and killed one, Sgt. William Palmer said. Minneapolis police say it's an appropriate response to an unpredictable threat.
"Injuries to officers and violent encounters with armed suspects serve as a reminder for us all that policing is a dangerous profession and officers must often make split-second decisions to keep both the community and themselves safe," Assistant Chief Janee Harteau said in a statement after the accidental shooting and a separate incident in which police shot a knife-wielding man.
What dangerous dogs can do to unarmed officers was captured on video last month in London, England, where a dog mauled five officers searching for a suspect. An armed officer eventually arrived and killed the "pit bull-type" dog, but not before it left four of his colleagues with serious injuries.
Yet a lawyer who has represented families who lost dogs to police bullets criticized the Minneapolis policy.
"It's not just the love of the dogs," said Paul Applebaum, a lawyer in St. Paul. "They're going into homes and shooting up homes. How do you know there isn't a kid behind the couch where the dog is? There's going to be a real tragedy some day if this keeps up."
Officers have discretion
Minneapolis police spokesman Sgt. Steve McCarty said officers have broad discretion when confronting dogs. Officers are trained to assess threats, he said, and to take the surroundings into consideration when firing a weapon.
"We train our officers to look at what's beyond their potential target," he said. McCarty, a veteran who spent 17 years on street patrols, said he once shot a dog that was running loose in north Minneapolis. It was a danger to himself, his partner and several kids who were standing nearby, he said.
In St. Paul, if an officer "has reason to believe that a dog is going to attack" an officer or even one of the K-9 partners, the officer is allowed to kill the animal, said St. Paul police spokesman Howie Padilla.
"There is a wide range there, but if I'm an officer I don't want to be bit," Padilla said. Such incidents are regularly reviewed to make sure proper procedure was followed, he said.
When it goes wrong
In 2002, a man in north Minneapolis set loose a pit bull as police officers warned him to keep the dog leashed. A police officer shot at the pit bull as it charged, only to have the bullet ricochet off the street and hit a 10-year-old boy in the arm. The boy would eventually recover, and the dog was killed, but the incident outraged neighbors who rioted for hours. Police and reporters who arrived at the scene were attacked with bottles and bricks.
The shooting of two dogs during a police raid on April 13, 2011, has led to a civil lawsuit against the city by their owners, James and Aisha Keten.
The couple's three-year-old daughter was eating breakfast at the kitchen table in the Humboldt Avenue North house when police entered the front door on a warrant. As soon as the officers entered the house, they shot and killed one dog, Kano, in the living room, then moments later fired "multiple, hollow-point rounds towards the kitchen table, killing another of the Keten's dogs," Remy, that was lying beneath the table, the suit alleges. The Ketens say neither dog displayed aggression and the bullets passed very close to the 3-year-old.
The officers then restrained James Keten, 28, with plastic zip ties and beat and kicked him in the head, neck and face while he lay on the floor, the suit alleges. After a search of the house, Keten was not arrested or charged with any crime.
The confrontation could have been avoided if the police had knocked on the front door as they were required to by the warrant, said Applebaum, the family's lawyer. It would have given the family time to secure the dogs, he said.
In court papers, the city acknowledged that Officer Chad Fuchs, who shot Remy in the kitchen, could see the girl at the kitchen table. But the city denied that the dogs were not aggressive, and denied beating James Keten.
Applebaum handled another case that ended with a $24,500 settlement last year after police shot a dog while executing a warrant. In that case, dog owner Darrell Williams was hit in the face with the butt of a rifle. His dog, named Obama, was shot and killed. The settlement was not for the dog, but for Williams' injuries.
It's not practical for the police to ask the city's animal control officers to come along on raids. But those officers have a different approach.
Tom Doty, manager of field services, animal care and control, said the city's animal control officers carry out about 50 warrants a year for dangerous dogs.
"You've got a large dog, we try to corner it in a yard with a fence," said Doty. Once the dog is cornered it becomes easier to catch it with the catch pole, a six-foot aluminum pole with a shrinkable cable loop at the end.
If the dog charges, the animal control officers use a "bite stick," a metal baton, said Doty. "They'll bite it once and they let go."
In his 21 years on the job, more than half of it on the street, Doty has never been seriously injured.
Staff writer Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report. Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747