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Was the Hawthorne Dog Shooting Necessary?

Last week, I banged out a really quick post that defended the actions of the Hawthorne, California cops who shot and killed a dog during the arrest of its owner. I thought that the shooting, while tragic, wasn't all that controversial considering the threat the dog posed at that very moment. Obviously, a whole lot of people feel otherwise -- and over the past week I think I've heard from all of them.
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The coolest job I ever had I got at the very young age of 14. It was the coolest job any 14-year-old should be allowed to have, the coolest job anybody should be allowed to have, period. When I was 14, a friend of my family's got me part-time summer work at the Broward County police academy, as an actor in its live-action police training exercises. Basically, it went like this: the instructors would set up a scenario aimed at recreating a real-life situation a cop might encounter in his or her daily routine, from something as simple as a suspicious or stolen vehicle stop to something as complex as a hostage standoff; they'd hand me a modified gun loaded with blanks which I'd slip into my waistband; then they'd basically give me one instruction -- if the recruit didn't bother to check me out, taking it for granted that I was just a kid, draw and kill that recruit the first chance I got.


Do you understand why I loved my job so much? That delicious look of shock, the one I saw on face after face as I walked up behind them, put a gun to their heads and fired. Bang. You're dead, stupid. That's what you get for ignoring your training. For a kid who wouldn't even be close to getting laid for another couple of years, it was what I imagined sex must be like. There's no way it couldn't be as thrilling as this, I figured. The only problem, of course, was that it didn't take long for word to get around the academy that newcomers to the training exercises needed to pay special attention to the cloyingly ingratiating kid who seemed to be no threat at all but who was, in reality, a heavily armed, sociopathic Eddie Haskell just itching to blow their fucking heads off. Good thing the job only lasted for a couple of months; I was starting to get a little roughed up there by the end.

While you could easily make the argument that what the job at the police academy should have taught me is that I'm very likely a danger to society, what I definitely learned was a very intense appreciation for what the police have to face every day of their working lives. There are indeed some terrible cops out there, bullies with a badge who have no business wearing the uniform, carrying a weapon, or being granted license to use force of any kind. But far more are good men and women under unbelievable stress in a job that often thrusts life-or-death decisions on them and for which they rarely get a lot of respect from the community. If they hesitate, they get killed; if they don't, they get crucified, and in the end, for their trouble, they usually get a livable pension and unlivable premature heart disease. In a million years, I wouldn't want the responsibility of being a cop, which is why I try very hard to cut them slack until they prove that they absolutely don't deserve it. I get that I don't have a lifetime of corrosive cultural mistrust between myself and the police to contend with, but I can only speak for myself. It doesn't hurt that my dad was a cop for years and he's always been a pretty damn good man.

With all of this in mind, maybe you'll be inclined to believe that I'm willing to give the police a pass when they screw up. I'm not -- not at all. But I do take into consideration the potential reasons why they do what they do during a situation that ultimately generates controversy or outrage. Unless it's something so obvious and egregious that there's just no reasonable excuse for acting or reacting in a certain manner, I always want to at least get the cops' side of the story when an arrest or a shooting happens that sparks immediate indignation, especially from the finely tuned outrage machine that's the natural byproduct of our new social media hive-mind.

Last week, I banged out a really quick post for my site, Deus Ex Malcontent, that defended the actions of the Hawthorne, California cops who shot and killed a dog during the arrest of its owner. The dog's name was Max, and as a huge dog-lover it was devastating to watch him being shot, but that doesn't mean the police weren't justified at that moment in doing what they did. It was an angry, 80-pound rottweiler that had just busted out of a car and was now baring its teeth and jumping directly at a police officer who appeared to be trying pretty desperately to grab hold of its leash. It's tragic that the dog had to be stopped, but it did -- one way or the other and in a split-second. I've watched the video clip several times now and I always come back to the same thing: If I'm that cop and that very big dog is threatening to rip me to shreds -- and if I don't have a taser drawn or a shotgun with a bean-bag round handy -- I'm shooting it. It's a truly unfortunate outcome, but if it's him or me, that's the way it's got to be. I simply don't think that at that very second what those cops did was wall that controversial.

Of course not everyone thinks this. Over the past week, I've been slammed with comments and e-mails the likes of which I haven't gotten on just about any subject I've ever written about. Some try to present the supposedly checkered record of the officer who did the shooting as proof that he's a thug who killed the dog for the hell of it. (Not simply an assumption but an irrelevant argument since the cop's past has no bearing on whether his life was in danger or he felt that his life was in danger at that moment.) Some argue that while the police might have been left with little choice but to shoot the dog, they didn't have to shoot it four times, killing it. (Police procedure is that when you fire your weapon you shoot to kill, always; warning or wounding shots only happen in the movies.) But most offer up a variation on the "deadly fruit of the poisonous tree" argument: that since the owner of the dog, 52-year-old Leon Rosby, never needed to be arrested in the first place, the shooting of his dog, stemming directly from it, likewise never should have happened and is therefore completely illegal.

Sorry, but that's kind of bullshit. And it brings me back to where I started.

A lot of people apparently look at the video of Leon Rosby and see a guy harmlessly stopping his car to get out and shoot video of cops. Yeah, he starts shouting at them and keeps doing it, but so what? They're professionals, they should ignore him, right? Maybe. But here's the thing: You have no idea what those police were dealing with at that scene, the one Rosby decided he needed to peripherally inject himself into. You have no idea whether that obviously active crime scene hadn't been fully secured yet, whether the presence of the shouting guy blasting music from his car -- the guy with the very big dog -- may have presented a problem or at the very least, in the mind of the cops, a variable that needed to be contained because it had the potential to have an indirect negative impact on the safety of police trying to do their jobs. You have no first-hand knowledge of any of that. Admittedly, I don't know whether the restraining of Leon Rosby was absolutely necessary, but you don't know that it wasn't. If you watch the video, Rosby walks over to his car and puts Max inside it, wisely trying to take the dog out of the picture. So when police come over and begin interacting with him -- when he either melodramatically offers himself up for arrest or is told to put his hands behind his back, we can't be sure -- they likely and mistakenly assume they're safe and so is Max. (This in my mind is the one unequivocal mistake they made: they should've double-checked to see that the dog was truly secured rather than the window being completely open.)

Without knowledge of exactly what was happening at that initial crime scene no one can even begin to judge whether the arrest of Rosby was warranted (although his temporary containment may very well have been regardless). Certainly you can look forward to a lawyer arguing that it wasn't and that the shooting of his dog really was an unnecessary product of an unnecessary arrest, but until all the facts are presented any assumption is just that: an assumption, one that renders any outrage stemming from it utterly worthless and toothless. What's more, the police who confronted Leon Rosby had something else they needed to keep in mind and see if this sounds at all familiar: They had no idea what they were dealing with in him. Sure, chances are he was just an understandably frustrated citizen or an obnoxious but harmless asshole -- or both -- but the cops didn't know that for sure. There may absolutely be a racial component to their decision and behind the actions of Rosby, even one no more specific than a history of friction between the police and the black community here in Southern California, but the cops still had the right to at least make sure that Rosby posed no threat. Because if they didn't bother to check him out and they were wrong about him, it could get them killed -- blown away by the person whom they'd dismissed as nothing more than an antagonistic but innocent non-entity.

Despite all of these complex considerations, once Max broke free from the car and jumped within inches of that officer's arm, all bets were off. It's tragic and unfortunate that the cop felt in that instant that he had no choice but to open fire, but it's also completely understandable when you've got an 80-pound rottweiler bearing down on you. The whole thing is horrible; no one should argue with that. But to claim that everything the police did was a violation of Rosby's civil rights which ultimately led to the unnecessary killing of a beloved pet when you don't have all or even most of the facts is just fucking folly.

It doesn't matter how visceral an impact this shooting has had on those who've seen it. It doesn't matter the instant conclusions that those who love dogs and don't necessarily love the cops are jumping to. It doesn't matter what "Anonymous" thinks needs to be done in response to the shooting or what millions of angry internet denizens think the police should have done, what's now inspiring death threats against cops. If I make grand assumptions and issue final absolute judgments about the arrest of Leon Rosby based on little more than an ambiguous video clip filtered through my own firm predispositions, it doesn't matter what the hell I think.

What matters is the facts of the incident and whether or not the cops followed procedure. If they didn't, the Hawthorne Police Department will pay heavily for it. But keep in mind that not doing so when it comes to questions of taking someone into custody or using deadly force when they believe there's no other choice can result in something a lot worse than the heartbreak of a dog being killed. People can die.