Milwaukee police may get animal abuse training

By Annysa Johnson
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE, Wis. When Milwaukee police officers enter the classroom next year for their latest round of training in such subjects as firearms use and defense and arrest tactics, they could see a new course offered: a primer on how to recognize and pursue dogfighting and other crimes against animals.

The Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission, the agency that must deal with and often euthanize the animals confiscated by police, is working with the department on a plan to offer training, based on a program adopted by the Chicago Police Department in 2002.

The commission's executive director, Melanie Sobel, had pitched the idea before last month's seizure of nine injured and emaciated pit bulls from a north side home; it was the second time in three months Milwaukee Police had uncovered evidence of dogfighting in the city.

She said the seizure, in which officers shot two dogs that attacked them as they entered the home, only reinforces the need for training.

"I think this should be done in every city," said Sobel, who proposed the training shortly after her arrival in August, when sheriff's deputies who came across evidence of dogfighting during an eviction declined to pursue charges.

"Animal abuse is a crime and should be recognized as important," she said.

"A lot of people say it's just dogs. But there are all kinds of studies that show a direct link between animal and human violence."

Dogfighting busts have soared nationally since April, when Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was first implicated in a dogfighting operation in Virginia.

Police departments and the public have become more aware of what to look for, said John Goodwin, manager of animal fighting issues for the Washington-based Humane Society of the United States, which has tracked dogfighting cases since August 2005.

In the eight months since the Vick case broke, authorities have uncovered 129 dogfighting operations nationwide including the two in Milwaukee one shy of the total for the 16 months that ended in December 2006.

Milwaukee Vice Capt. Timothy Burkee said his officers are seeing it, "but it's not an epidemic."

Still, Inspector Ramon Galaviz, who runs the Milwaukee Police Academy, called Sobel's proposal timely.

"Obviously, the Michael Vick story raised a lot of concerns here for us at the academy," Galaviz said.

If approved by incoming Police Chief Edward Flynn, the new training would cover several areas, including:

How to identify animal abuse and neglect, assess it for criminal violations, and collect and preserve evidence. Dogfighting is a felony in 48 states, including Wisconsin; and it's a federal felony, as of May of this year, to transport animals across state lines for fighting. Animal abuse and neglect in Wisconsin can be charged as a crime or municipal infraction, depending on the circumstances.

Research on the links between animal abuse and interpersonal violence and other crimes. A Chicago Police Department study, which analyzed 332 arrest records from 2001 to 2004, found that 65% of those arrested for crimes against animals had prior arrests for battery, 70% for drugs, and 26% for weapons offenses; 59% had gang ties; and 13% were sex offenders.

How to avoid lethal force when dealing with dogs.

"If you can teach someone how to decipher canine body language and use a snare pole, you can avoid using a gun," said Sobel, noting that ricocheting bullets can endanger more than dogs.

The arrest of Vick, who faces up to five years in prison when he is sentenced today, has done much to peel back the veil on the world of dogfighting, a secret and violent enterprise, tied often, experts say, to drug trafficking, gambling, gangs and other criminal activities.

Local fights suspected

"We're seeing more attention, more arrests, more prosecutions than ever," said Goodwin, who believes that there's more going on in Milwaukee than police realize, and that training will help officers uncover it.

"We know there is a movement of dogfighting people going back and forth between Milwaukee and Chicago," he said.

"If it comes up when police are not looking for it, imagine how much more they'll find if they are."

The society estimates that 40,000 people nationally are involved in organized dogfighting in which owners breed animals almost exclusively pit bulls for "gameness," that willingness to fight to the death. It estimates that 100,000 more participate in street-level fighting, and that between the two groups, they own about 250,000 dogs.

Although many people legitimately own pit bulls as pets, animal welfare advocates say the proliferation of the breed is tied to its use for fighting.

"Sixteen years ago, 2 to 3 percent of the animals coming through (animal control facilities) were pit bulls; now that's about 30 percent," Goodwin said.

In Milwaukee, 1,438 of the 4,675 dogs brought into the local Animal Control Commission's facility in 2006 were pit bulls, officials said.

Copyright 2007 The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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