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Baltimore police consider using nonlethal tranquilizers in animal cases

Baltimore police are considering switching to nonlethal tranquilizer darts to control dangerous animals as they face scrutiny for the killing of two animals this month.

In a reassessment that began several months ago, police have been considering more humane ways of immobilizing dangerous animals, police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said. The review was prompted by a problem with the department's supplier of lethal darts, which the agency had stopped ordering.

Kowalczyk said police are "evaluating law enforcement agencies across the nation to see what best practices are" before deciding whether to begin using any kind of tranquilizer gun again.

The issue of police force with animals has been debated in recent days after a Baltimore police officer fatally shot a steer that had escaped from a slaughterhouse and was wandering city streets. Also last week, an officer reportedly slit the throat of a dog in Southeast Baltimore after the animal had gotten loose and had bitten a person, but was restrained with a dog pole.

Aileen Gabbey, executive director of the Maryland SPCA, said she supported the use of nonlethal darts but worried about what might happen in future cases while the department deliberated.

"That would have been a safer option with people around," Gabbey said, referring to police using nonlethal tranquilizer darts in cases like the loose steer. "It would have been safer to the public."

Kowalczyk said the lethal darts police previously used were an effective weapon against violent animals when officers believed there was too much risk in using bullets, which could ricochet or create dangerous fragments. The lethal darts had been used in situations in which dangerous animals were surrounded by officers or "contained," he said.

"When these darts were used, it was a dangerous animal that was confined," Kowalczyk said. "The animal represents a significant threat that there was no other way to contain it. It's dangerous. It's going to hurt somebody."

But he said commanders wanted to rethink the darts' use and consider ways to restrain animals without killing them.

On June 13, a Baltimore officer fired multiple times into the steer that had escaped the West Baltimore slaughterhouse after police said the animal was a threat to public safety. Efforts to corral the steer with patrol cars and trap it in a parking garage had failed. The incident is being reviewed by the department's Force Investigation Team.

Even if officers had been carrying tranquilizer guns that day, Kowalczyk said, they couldn't have been used. Department policy stipulates that the darts can only be fired once an animal is no longer a danger to the public, because there's no way to predict how an animal might react to the drugs, he said.

William J. Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said he doesn't know of many departments that use tranquilizer guns. Police in nearby departments such as Washington and Baltimore County say their officers do not carry them.

Animal control officers, who are better trained to deal with animals, are more likely to carry them, Johnson said. Police are often called when animals pose an immediate public danger, and a tranquilizer gun might not be the best option because the drugs take time to take effect.

The escaped steer disrupted traffic in downtown Baltimore and created a scene on the streets. This week, police released audio recordings of 911 calls of the incident that illustrate the chaos.

"I'm calling to report that a bull, a full-sized bull, is running out in the street in the 2500 block of Retreat Street," one man said in an emergency call. (Many bystanders mistook the steer for a bull.)

"You're saying an animal? B-U-L-L? Is that what you're saying?" a dispatcher responded.

"Yeah, a real B-U-L-L," the caller said.

Sean Sneeton was picking up a colleague for work that morning when he walked back to his car and saw the escaped steer trotting down Druid Hill Avenue toward him. "It actually just almost hit my car," Sneeton told the dispatcher. "It tried to charge me."

"Oh, my God!" the dispatcher said.

"I got out of my car and tried to take a picture, because he was running toward me," Sneeton said. "Then he started coming at me with his head. He tried to take the door off."

The day after the steer shooting, another incident involving a stray animal and police angered many residents and attracted the attention of national news outlets.

Last Saturday, police said, Officer Jeffrey Bolger, 49, slit the throat of a Shar-Pei. He has been charged with aggravated animal cruelty, animal cruelty and malfeasance in office. The 22-year veteran has been suspended without pay.

Thomas Schmidt, a 24-year officer, was suspended with pay in the incident. Internal investigators said he held down the dog while Bolger cut its throat, according to court records.

Police union officials, who are paying for Bolger's defense, declined to comment Friday. The union has not commented on Schmidt's case.

Bolger and Schmidt are assigned to department's Emergency Services unit, which carries dog-control poles and sometimes responds to incidents involving dangerous animals.

Animal Control workers also were called to help with the stray Shar-Pei, but Michael Schwartzberg, a spokesman for the Baltimore City Health Department, which oversees the agency, declined to comment on their involvement.

Kowalczyk said the continuing criminal investigation prevented him from discussing the incident.

Police declined to speculate whether tranquilizer guns might have changed the outcome of that situation, and top-ranking commanders have said Bolger's alleged actions were beyond any explanation.

"This was so outside the realm of policy and procedure," Kowalczyk said. "This incident had no bearing in the way we respond to incidents."

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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