What happens when police policy and family pets collide?

Bullets aren't the answer

PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. - Family, friends and supporters of a family whose dog was fatally shot by a Pembroke Pines police officer gathered at a "Justice for Baxter" rally at Pembroke Pines City Hall Wednesday night, seeking a change in the police policy that took the life of their dog.

Baxter, a 6-year-old Australian shepherd, was shot by officer Nicholas Taber while he and police officer trainee, Daniel Sammarco, were responding to a call of a loose dog in the Lido Isle community on Feb. 24.

Taber reportedly discharged six shots from his weapon.  Three of them hit Baxter.

Baxter survived the initial shooting, and after several surgeries, went home to his family.

Two weeks later, 18-year-old Bella Jones awoke to find her family's beloved shepherd in his favorite spot in the house. 

"Wake up, Baxter," she said.  "Please, boy, wake up." 

"We were hoping for the best," the family said.  "But the doctors explained that possibly his body could not handle the stress that it had endured. It may have been heart failure, stroke or possibly a blood clot."

Police and Baxter's family each have their version of what led to the shooting.

The details have been discussed over and over again.

But no amount of discussion will bring Baxter back.

In a memo issued Tuesday morning, Pembroke Pines Police said that an investigation into the fatal shooting of Baxter concluded that the officer's actions were "consistent with the current policies and procedures of the Pembroke Pines Police Department."

This column is not meant to attack police officers.  God knows they put their lives on the line each time they put on their uniforms. 

But it's also not meant to absolve them – or the departments they represent – from policies and procedures that clearly need to be addressed and modified.

The Pembroke Pines Police report goes on to say that "attempts to detain the dog failed and the dog while growling and showing its teeth continued towards Officer Sammarco. The dog then lunged at Officer Sammarco who raised his foot to fight off the attack. Fearing for Officer Sammarco's safety and well being, Officer Taber discharged his department issued firearm until the dog ceased its attack."

The report, however, does not specify exactly what attempts were made to detain Baxter.

"6 shots, really?" asked a sign at Wednesday night's rally.

Sadly, what happened to Baxter is not an isolated case confined to Pembroke Pines, or South Florida for that matter.

A simple Google search for "dogs shot by police" turned up so many instances for me that I gave up trying to highlight any one of them for this column.

Playing Devil's advocate, I can understand that officer Taber may have acted on instinct.  A dog was attacking his partner, so his instinct told him to protect him.

I get that.

But don't police officers carry mace?  Don't they carry Tasers?

"I would have taken a bullet for my dog," my friend Dawn Hanna told me a few years ago when I interviewed her for an article I was writing.

It's a sentiment shared by many of us who consider our pets part of our family.

The Jones' son, 13-year-old Cameron, witnessed Baxter's shooting.  Imagine what would have happened if his instincts had told him to take a bullet for his dog.

"What do you hope to accomplish tonight," I asked supporters at the rally.

"Policy change," was the united response I received over and over again.  A policy change that tells police officers that reaching for their guns is not the first line of defense when trying to subdue a family pet.

Everyone I interviewed had the same answer, or a similar version.

Bella's answer touched me the most.

"I'm here to make sure that what happened to my family doesn't happen to anyone else," she said..

The Jones family does not seek revenge. 

A post on Baxter's tribute page on Facebook Thursday said:

"On behalf of the family, I am asking that you not make this a personal vendetta against this particular officer. The family never released the names until it was released by the press. What the family desires is that a policy be created to prevent this from ever happening again. They have gone about this in an honorable manner despite the anger and grief each has been experiencing. A personal witch hunt is no part of this family's objective. They will continue to fight to honor Baxter, but fighting in a way that will effectuate a policy, not fuel the flames of hatred."

A review of police policy seems to be a logical request.

As of this writing, the Pembroke Pines Police Department has not responded to my request for a comment.

So I leave you with this …

Officer Taber fired six shots.  Three went into Baxter.

Thankfully divine intervention took the other three bullets.

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