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Pender County man suing sheriff’s department hopes lawsuit saves dogs’ lives

Updated: Apr. 22, 2021 at 8:06 PM EDT
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BURGAW, N.C. (WECT) - A specialist for the Department of Justice estimates that 25-30 dogs are killed every single day across the country by law enforcement officers. There’s no formal tracking system for this type of encounter, and the actual number may be much higher, but the problem is big enough that the DOJ specialist called it an epidemic.

There are recent examples right here in southeastern North Carolina, and one of them resulted in a lawsuit making its way through federal court. Bruce Benson’s Dutch Shepherd mix, Astro, was shot and killed by a Pender County Sheriff’s deputy conducting a welfare check last August.

Benson says there’s no amount of money that could make this right, but he hopes his lawsuit will encourage better training that might save other dogs.

“He was one of the very, very best dogs I ever had. Loyal, protective, within reason,” Benson said of the dog he’d had for four years before he was tragically killed eight months ago. “I wouldn’t have taken a million dollars for Astro. He was my service dog, my companion dog. I’m a disabled veteran.”

Benson said Astro loved children and had never bitten anyone. But a rookie deputy shot Astro last year, saying the salivating dog chased him in Benson’s front yard, and made him fear for his safety.

“If he’d have stopped and stood still, Astro would have run up to him, and run around him at a distance of 2-3 feet barking, and then run off and started chasing dragonflies and butterflies,” Benson said of the situation. He felt the deputy’s decision to run away unnecessarily escalated the dog’s response.

Attorneys for the Pender County Sheriff’s Office dispute what happened that day, denying that the deputy “fled” from the dog. They described it as a “retreat in order to put distance between the dog as it ran towards them.”

While postal carriers and meter readers who also encounter dogs on a regular basis are taught how to deal with them, Benson says many law enforcement officers are not adequately trained to avoid dog attacks. Instead, he says they’re resorting to lethal force, and dogs are being shot and killed when there are better alternatives.

“I cannot imagine that a taser that can take a 200+ pound healthy man and drop him to the ground almost instantaneously, I can’t imagine it wouldn’t work on a less than 100 pound dog,” Benson reasoned.

“There is currently no designated aggressive animal training offered through Basic Law Enforcement courses,” Pender County Sheriff’s Captain James Rowell confirmed to WECT. “We did, as a result of this incident, partner with a local veterinarian who came in and conducted a class on aggressive animal behaviors.”

The Pender County Sheriff’s Office says the deputy’s actions were not unreasonable under the circumstances. The department has admitted the deputy was not carrying a taser.

It’s not just the dogs in harm’s way. According to published reports, people have also been killed when officers’ bullets meant for dogs hit innocent bystanders instead.

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