The steady stream of stories we’ve seen in which cops shoot dogs is disturbing for a number of reasons. There’s the fact that so many departments don’t bother to give officers training on how to deal with dogs in ways other than killing them (though there has been some progress here.) There’s the policy in far too many departments that so long as an officer says he feared for his safety, the dog shooting will be deemed justified, no matter how irrational that fear may have been. (When combined with the lack of training, such a policy basically means every dog shooting will be excused.) There’s the implicit attitude in these stories that police officer safety trumps all — that any fear of any injury justifies the use of lethal force. There’s the callousness and indifference with which the owners of these animals are often treated. But there’s also this: Even when a dog really is menacing and aggressive, sending a stream of bullets in its general direction just isn’t a safe way to handle the problem.
Hence, this awful story from Iowa.
A woman in Burlington, Iowa, was reportedly shot and killed by a police officer outside her home, in front of her 4-year-old son and her husband.
According to reports, 34-year-old Autumn Mae Steele was arrested on Jan. 5 on a charge of domestic abuse. After being released from jail, Steele was told she could not return to her home without an officer to escort her. When she returned to her home to retrieve her things, she reportedly got into a dispute with her husband, Gabriel, as he was loading their 4-year-old son into the car.
The officer who escorted Steele to her home reportedly tried to break up the altercation, and while he was attempting to intervene, the family’s dog reportedly approached. The officer allegedly felt threatened by the dog and pulled out his gun to shoot it. As he fired shots at the dog, one of the bullets reportedly hit the 34-year-old mother in the chest . . .
“The dog startled the officer. The officer began shooting at the dog. The officer was still shooting when he fell down in the snow,” an eyewitness told The Hawk Eye.
“It appeared he was shooting at the dog when [the officer] fell to the ground,” another eyewitness reportedly said. “It’s my belief the woman was shot accidentally.”
This isn’t the first time an officer has reportedly shot at a dog and mistakenly hit a human. It happens a few times each year, including instances where cops have mistakenly shot other cops, nearby children or even themselves. In an Ohio drug raid a few years ago, one officer mistook the sound of his colleagues shooting the suspect’s dogs for hostile gunfire. He reacted by opening fire into a bedroom, killing a woman and injuring the child she was holding at the time.
According to the Des Moines Register, the Iowa officer in this story was treated at a local hospital for a dog bite. But as I’ve reported before, postal workers, delivery drivers, meter readers and other service industry professionals interact with strangers’ dogs on a daily basis. The U.S. Postal Service in particular pays a lot of attention to dog bites and gives mail carriers plenty of training on how to interact with pets. Bites do happen, but they’re rare. There are about 6,000 reported dog attacks on mail carriers each year. That’s out of about a half million postal workers annually delivering 150-plus-billion pieces of mail to more than 150 million delivery points. When you figure that about half of U.S. households have a dog, that’s a lot of postal worker-canine interactions. Somehow, they’re able to pull off those interactions without producing a regular beat of stories about mail carriers killing animals — or in this case, killing an animal’s owner.