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Citizens call on town to dig deeper into dog shooting, cite issues with police communication

BRATTLEBORO—The shooting of a dog on the Green Street School’s playground on March 21 has reignited some citizens’ concerns about communicating with the Brattleboro Police Department and undermined their faith in the town’s response.

According to an internal investigation led by Brattleboro Police Capt. Michael Fitzgerald, two officers responded to a call at the Crowell Lot on Western Avenue that a dog appeared sick and dying.

The shooting prompted two citizens’ complaints to the BPD, and a request to discuss the incident at the Selectboard meeting on May 1.

At the meeting, speakers expressed frustration about the official handling of the shooting, anger at the lack of communication from the police, sadness about the dog’s inhumane death, and fear that the officers’ actions underscored a deeper issue of violence in Brattleboro.

The Selectboard listened to citizens with little comment, having already accepted the police department’s handling of the matter.

Chief responds to investigation

In an April 27 memo to the Selectboard, Police Chief Eugene Wrinn wrote, “Over the course of the incident, the initial responding officer made a decision using his years of training and experience that it was not safe to allow the dog to remain unsecured, and as he approached the dog, the animal — which is described as a pit bull — began to back up and growl at him.”

According to the memo, officers followed the dog down the hill to the playground at Green Street School. One officer described the dog’s fur as patchy and falling out. Earlier, the report noted, this same officer accompanied Animal Control Officer Kathy Burrows to deal with a suspected rabid fox.

The memo states that, once on the playground, officers positioned themselves between the dog and members of the public who “self-evacuated” once they realized what was happening.

The officers waited until the people left the playground. One of the officers shot the dog twice.

In his memo, Wrinn wrote that the officers should have followed up with members of the public and animal control.

“I am in total agreement with Captain Fitzgerald that it is unfortunate that the police needed to take the life of the animal,” wrote Wrinn.

“More thought and effort should have been placed into dealing with the after-effects and making immediate contact with citizens in the area, as the officers felt they did not have the time and opportunity to explain what was going to happen before the actual shooting.”

Wrinn continued, “Officers also should have followed up with Green Street School staff to make them aware of the incident. It appears that Department officers may have had contact and/or incidents involving this animal in the recent past, and the information was not properly forwarded to animal control officer Burrows to follow up.”

“These issues will be discussed with staff to insure that similar incidents in the future or situations needing better communications may be handled more effectively.”

The right call?

Annie Guion, executive director of the Windham County Humane Society, questioned the police’s training and authority.

Guion characterized the shooting as inhumane and asked to see the town’s files, including any test results that determined if the dog was sick. She also questioned if officials had checked to see if the dog had a microchip to help locate its owner.

In a separate interview, Guion said she had a conversation with Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray last week and will meet with Wrinn and Town Manager Barbara Sondag to see the files on May 11.

Until then, Guion said she will withhold judgement on the BPD’s actions and the town’s subsequent response. The humane society contracts with the town to hold stray animals.

“You couldn’t pay me enough” to be a police officer, she said.

A big concern of Guion’s remains: Did the dog’s assumed Pit Bull breed motivate the officers’ decision to kill?

DNA testing remains the only sure way to determine a dog’s breed, she said; otherwise, she asserted, people guess incorrectly 75 percent of the time.

According to Guion, Maryland recently banned the breed and cleared the road for euthanizing those dogs assumed to be Pit Bulls.

Guion said that the breed is not inherently aggressive, but that its bad reputation comes courtesy of the humans who use the dogs in fights.

“A dog, like a person, has to be judged on its character, not what it looks like,” she said.

Guion guesses that the dog had shown up on the Crowell Lot hungry and scared after living a hard-knock life.

“That’s what we’re here for,” said Guion, who maintains that if Burrows had responded to the call, the dog would have made it safely to the Humane Society.

The Humane Society puts every dog through the ASPCA’s seven-stage “SAFER test.” The test evaluates the dogs’ temperaments while screening for aggression and level of bite risk.

“Any dog will bite given the right circumstances, but a high bite risk we don’t want to adopt out,” she said.

But Guion also cautioned both the police and citizens when she said there’s not enough education of people on how to approach animals in public. She routinely tells pet owners to collar their animals and to include a name and phone number.

Searching for answers

“Right now, I feel like I don’t have enough answers to move forward,” said Isabel Matweecha, who witnessed the event while at the Crowell Lot and playground with her husband and children, during a phone call to The Commons this week.

Matweecha said she did not feel threatened by the dog and that officers sent mixed messages about the dog’s level of aggression. She filed a complaint with the police after the shooting and spoke at the board meeting.

At the meeting, she expressed dissatisfaction with the department’s findings and requested an independent investigation. Matweecha also called for better communication between police and citizens.

Matweecha later said that she recently emailed Sondag expressing dissatisfaction at the town’s willingness to accept Wrinn and Fitzgerald’s report.

The board’s responses during the meeting left Matweecha feeling like the town had no interest in addressing citizens’ concerns.

Matweecha said she is trying hard to view the incident from the perspective of the police.

“But it was so traumatizing to me,” she said. “That my children had to be exposed to that. That my husband had to be exposed to that.”

“I just think I deserve more explanations,” Matweecha said.

Overall, Matweecha hopes that some good will come from the dog’s death. She didn’t want a “rift” between the department and the community, but she also stressed the need for better communication.

Terry Carter also spoke at the board meeting. In a phone interview with The Commons last week, she said she feels that the shooting, the reaction to it by the town and the police, and what she characterized as “biased” and “watered down” news coverage underscore a deeper culture of fear.

Carter said she left the board meeting feeling patronized and marginalized by the Selectboard. DeGray’s response to the public expressing their views equated to “patting us on the head.”

Carter said that past animal shootings by police, experiences of rude and disrespectful treatment by police, and not releasing the name of the officer who shot the dog on March 21 all point to examples of a deeper acceptance of violence.

“Might makes right — don’t question the status quo,” she said. “It’s a mindset, and it’s a mindset that needs to be exposed.”

DeGray said that the Selectboard considers the incident closed and will not pursue further investigation.

Calls to Sondag and Wrinn were not returned by press time.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #151 (Wednesday, May 9, 2012).

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