Legislation follows a slew of canines killed by police in Colorado

After a number of dog deaths at the hands of police officers, the Colorado legislature is pushing a bill that would mandate three hours of online training for officers statewide in understanding dog behavior and how to handle dogs while on duty. 

John Leyba, The Denver Post/Associated Press
Julie Hanan, of Highlands Ranch, holding her dogs Murphy and MacKenzie, listens to Sen. Dave Balmer during a rally in support of SB 226, a bill to train officials on how to handle canine encounters, on April 3.
John Leyba, The Denver Post/Associated Press
Maggie Couch, of Aurora, holds a sign during a rally in support of SB 226, a bill to train officials on how to handle canine encounters, on April 3.

Scar was an 8-year-old bulldog mix who was fatally shot by a police officer pursuing a suspect, even though witnesses said he never left his yard and was not barking or growling.

Kupa was a service dog who was shot and killed while a sheriff's deputy was responding to a welfare check on her owner.

And Ava was a German shepherd who had a rawhide treat in her mouth and was turning toward her summoning owner when she was fatally shot by an officer responding to a call.

Dog lovers concerned about recent cases where law enforcement fatally shot people's pets lobbied Colorado lawmakers on a bill Wednesday that would require new training for law enforcement on how to handle canine encounters in the line of duty, a legislative idea that appears to be unique in the country.

The bill unanimously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and will be considered later by the full chamber.

Several dozen dog owners rallied outside the Capitol before the bill was heard. Some held signs that read, "Officer, please don't kill me," with an accompanying picture of a dog. The bill specifically cites canines shot by law enforcement in Colorado, including Scar, Kupa, and Ava.

"I believe that Coloradoans deeply love their dogs and really want us to work hard here at the Capitol to make sure that their dogs are protected," said Republican Sen. David Balmer, a sponsor of the bill. "I should say our dogs are protected. I've got three dogs myself."

The proposal would require sheriff and police departments to offer three hours of online training for deputies and officers on how to recognize dog behaviors and employ nonlethal methods to control them when necessary. The legislation would also direct law enforcement to implement procedures to allow dog owners the option to control or remove their dogs during a non-violent call.

However, the bill creates exemptions for law enforcement to exercise discretion during calls, taking into account their safety and the safety of others in dealing with dogs. Sheriff's deputies assigned to courts or jails are also exempted from the training, as are code enforcement officers.

Balmer said law enforcement handles situations with dogs correctly most of the time, but additional training on canine behaviors could reduce shootings. In the examples cited in the bill, the legislation sponsors say there were questions about whether the dogs actually posed a threat.

The County Sheriffs of Colorado worked on — and support — the legislation.

"We just wanted to be part of the process. We think our voices were heard," said Chris Olson, the executive director of the group.

Balmer said the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police is not taking a stance on the bill, but they're not opposing it. They also helped craft the legislation to make sure any concerns were addressed, he said.

Greenwood Village Police Chief John Jackson, who speaks on behalf of the chiefs of police on legislative matters, did not immediately return a call.

The Arvada Police Department in suburban Denver has been training police to recognize different dog behaviors, and the program was recently expanded to include all officers, said Jill McGranahan, a spokeswoman.

Darrel Stephens, the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said he's unaware of any state or local government with laws or ordinances requiring training for law enforcement on how to handle dog encounters.

"Unfortunately police officers do shoot dogs from time to time when they feel threatened by a vicious or aggressive dog," Stephens said. He said that in his experience, dog shootings are rare.

"When they do occur, it is difficult for pet owners to see the circumstances in the same way an officer sees them — understandably they do not see their pet as being aggressive and potentially harmful to an officer," he said. "It is also difficult for the officers."

Supporters of the bill say it can make a difference.

"My best friend was shot in the back," said 30-year-old Brittany Moore, the owner of Ava, choking up as she spoke at the rally. "The rawhide bone fell from Ava's mouth, and she made the most awful sound that I have ever heard and immediately fell to the ground."

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