29 May 2017

WELFARE - Wrongful Deaths and Civil Suits

(Vern, courtesy Tim Reeves)
In 2014, Officer Rodney Price of the Anne Arundel County police service shot and killed Vern, a four-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever.

The shooting is one of many such incidents, but this one is notable because three years later a jury has awarded Vern’s family $1.26 million in damages.

This amount includes $500,000 in monetary damages and $760,000 for the anguish the family suffered as a result of the shooting.

The question of how to handle pet deaths caused by police officers is a fraught issue in contemporary America.

Late last year a federal court determined that officers are justified in shooting dogs that bark or move during a police raid.

And, earlier this year, a federal judge rejected a request to dismiss a lawsuit filed after an officer shot and killed a dog who charged at him when he entered a yard to search for a missing child.

The courts seem undecided on how to handle situations of pet deaths, and that ambiguity is likely to remain a factor for quite some time.

Pets are in a shifting legal position right now, no longer considered mere property but still not given the same consideration under the law that a person would be.

Some legal scholars have proposed that animals be treated as “living property,” which would introduce a new legal category of property and would afford non-human animals legal rights.

Austria, Germany, and Switzerland all have legislation that defines animals as something other than property, but none of these countries take the legislation so far as to consider animals persons under the law.

Personhood under the law doesn’t necessarily mean that fewer dogs would be killed, or that their families would more easily or consistently receive compensation.

America’s grappling with police shootings and wrongful deaths extend far beyond the many animals shot and killed each year, and the $1.26 million damages awarded following Vernon’s death stand in stark contrast to other recent lawsuit settlements.

Last month, a Cook County jury awarded $350,000 in damages after ruling that the police shooting of Christian Green, a 17-year-old black teen, was unjustified.

A 2014 report by the Washington Post found that municipalities pay out millions of dollars settling lawsuits related to police abuse, and a 2015 report by the same paper highlighted the uneven results of civil suits.

Some claimants receive awards in the millions, and some receive nothing.

There are many factors that influence how, and whether, families receive financial compensation following a wrongful death, but often these cases require proof of improper training or past misconduct.

The issue of wrongful police killings of humans, which disproportionately impact racialized communities in both America and Canada, is a separate issue from that of police shootings of dogs.

But they share an element in common – these killings are often committed by police officers who have not received adequate training in de-escalation, threat assessment, and non-lethal response.

Officers have been trained to use force first, and efforts to move to de-escalation training (which could reduce avoidable deaths), has met some resistance.

Although civil lawsuits offer families some compensation following these tragic deaths, no dollar amount can be sufficient.

There remains a need to teach officers how to respond more effectively to perceived threats.

In 2013, following Vern’s death, owner Tim Reeves questioned the safety of an officer discharging his weapon in a residential neighbourhood. He said, “I’m just glad it wasn’t a person.”

Unfortunately, sometimes, it is a person.

About Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a published academic, an editor with the Editors Association of Canada, an independent scholar and researcher, and a self-care and narrative coach. She is particularly interested in the intersection of technology and identity - how our tools shape our selves and change our stories, and in how the nature of work is changing as we incorporate more technology into our daily lives.

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