Berwyn Heights leader says he pushed for policy change in settlement to prevent repeat of tragedy
This story was corrected at 11 a.m. July 27. An explanation is at the end of the story.
It has been four years since Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo’s two black Labrador retrievers were killed by Prince George’s County sheriff deputies during a raid on his home and, since that time, he has focused on making changes to prevent the needless killings of animals by law enforcement officers.
That time has arrived, according to county officials.
In-service animal-control training began in March for county police and began in May for sheriff’s deputies.
Calvo’s home was raided by a county SWAT team July 29, 2008, after a 32-pound package of marijuana was mailed to his home to be intercepted in a smuggling operation in which Calvo and his family were later cleared of any involvement. Calvo, who was never charged, said officers entered his home without knocking and shot his two dogs, Chase and Payton.
After the incident made national headlines, the mayor agreed last year to a settlement against the county police department and sheriff’s office, which both were involved in the raid. As a result of that settlement, the county law enforcement agencies have implemented training courses for officers on how to properly control loose animals, specifically dogs, without using lethal force when at the scene of an incident.
“I remember when I met the officers and sheriff’s deputies who shot my dogs,” Calvo said referring to the settlement meeting. “On some level, it’s a very emotional thing. You have an expectation that they’re not very nice people. But it wasn’t that they were bad people. Honestly, it was that they didn’t know any better. … They had nothing in place.”
Calvo said rather than asking for money in the settlement, he wanted to spark change and prevent a similar incident from occurring.
“So many of those situations are because an officer is fearful, and they have no training, but it’s completely unnecessary,” Calvo said. “Mailmen get excellent training on how to deal with dogs. Police don’t get a similar training. They have firearms at their side and jump to lethal force, and it’s completely unnecessary. They’re only as good as their training.”
Jamar Henry, the county police department’s legal adviser, said a specific training course was not outlined in Calvo’s settlement, but it did include establishing a new policy for confronting animals using “humane and non-lethal force where possible.” In that new policy, the police department decided to create a new course for in-service training.
Cpl. Mike Summers, who leads the animal control classes in the police department’s training and education division, said prior to the new class, training on how to deal with animals was not provided.
The one-hour course officers will take annually, along with their other annual classes, reviews everyday cases, teaches officers lethal and less lethal options for controlling loose animals, and shows officers how to recognize signs of animal aggression, Summers said.
As of mid-June, 624 of the roughly 1,500 county police officers have received the “Dealing with Aggressive Animals” course, and every officer eventually will have taken the course as officers cycle through the annual training classes, Summers said.
To supplement the classes, the department also has received 75 animal-restraint poles — 4-foot metal poles with loops designed to trap dogs at their necks and prevent them from attacking. The poles have been distributed to each of the police district stations for use by any officer who has completed the in-service animal training.
Summers said the poles are “another tool in the toolbox” to use for animal containment. Each of the 50 patrol squads in the county have one officer assigned to carry the pole, Summers said.
Although Summers said the training is designed to help limit departmental shootings involving animals, he said the outcome of an animal’s life is case-by-case depending on the situation. He said he has had to shoot several dogs in his 17-year tenure with the department, noting that once there were two dogs viciously attacking another small dog and, in another instance, he arrived on a crime scene and two large dogs lunged at him.
Sheriff’s deputies began receiving animal control-specific education as part of their annual in-service training May 30.
Mark Spencer, inspector general for the sheriff’s office, said a lot of policy revisions started in 2010 when Sheriff Melvin C. High, who was the police chief at the time of the Calvo raid, took office. He noted, however, that several pieces of training for deputies related to animal control stemmed from the settlement, such as learning how to determine the behavior of a dog and to quickly notify animal control.
He also said the sheriff’s office invited Randall Lockwood, vice president of forensic services for the national chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to speak to deputies on dog behavior and how to use non-lethal force toward animals.
“We’ve put emphasis on trying to de-escalate situations where we encounter loose animals,” he said.
Similar to the county police department, Spencer said the sheriff’s office purchased capture poles to help trap animals.
Summers and Spencer did not have statistics on how many law enforcement loose animal-related shootings there are in Prince George’s. Both offices said they do not compile statistics on animal shootings.
Calvo said he hopes the education on animal control that has been added reduces the number of “needless animal deaths.”
“A concept in law enforcement that is a critical one is continuum force. Law enforcement should use the minimum level of force to achieve their directive,” he said. “That doesn’t mean every judgment is perfect, but the principal is in place.
The same continuum should apply to domestic animals.”
Correction: The initial story incorrectly identified which law-enforcement agency shot the dogs. The shootings have been attributed to the Prince George’s County sheriff’s department, which was involved in the SWAT raid.