Lessons from Nala [Commentary]

A Shar-Pei dog named Nala was set loose in a backyard with an inadvertently open gate in Canton last month. Shortly afterward, a well-meaning woman was bitten superficially by Nala as she tried to catch the dog. The woman then called the police, who sent officers to respond to the call. Veteran Officers Jeffrey Bolger and Thomas Schmidt gained control of the dog with a piece of equipment called a catch pole.

A dog restrained with a catch pole can then be transported safely. But that's not what the two officers did, according to police.

As Jeffrey Bolger got out of the squad car, a witness claims to have heard him say "I'm going to (expletive) gut this thing." And once the dog was under control, police say, Officer Bolger enlisted the assistance of Officer Schmidt to hold the dog down. And then, with no further provocation, he slit Nala's throat. She died before Animal Control arrived. At the time of her escape, Nala was wearing a collar and tags that included her owner's name and phone number.

Whether or not you care about the well-being of animals, Nala's killing should concern you.

Why? Well, Mr. Bolger's alleged actions tell us some pretty troubling things about him, the Baltimore police force and the attitudes that are deemed acceptable there. Mr. Bolger has been on the force for 22 years. It's true, he and Mr. Schmidt now face criminal charges of animal cruelty, aggravated animal cruelty and malfeasance in office, and the police administration lined up at the television microphones to condemn their actions. Official response so far has been appropriately serious.

But if the charges against him are true, is it really possible that no one on the force knew what kind of person Mr. Bolger was before this incident? Do you wonder, as I do, if Mr. Bolger's evident impatience and hostility toward this dog wasn't reflective of more widely held attitudes in the department? I'm sure the police want us to think that Mr. Bolger is a uniquely bad guy whom they are punishing with all due zeal. But I wonder if Mr. Bolger thought there was nothing controversial about his actions. I wonder what it was like to get pulled over for a broken taillight by such an officer. And I seriously question whether this man's alleged viciousness was entirely confined to his attitude toward animals.

It is clear that the Baltimore police need to change their institutional culture toward the handling of animals. The killing of Nala occurred one day after another Baltimore police officer shot to death a steer in Mt. Vernon after it had escaped a slaughterhouse. The officers need better training, they need proper equipment, and they need most of all to use more patience and discretion and be less inclined to solve problems with their weapons. Those changes require institutional resources, but mostly they require clear direction from the top that there is no place on the force for Mr. Bolger or anyone with violent inclinations. If the particulars of this case are as reported, Mr. Bolger needs to lose his job and pension, and the union had better let him be punished without question. (Both Officers Bolger and Schmidt have been placed on administrative leave). And if I were Nala's owner, I would lawyer up and sue both officers and the city.

The reason this incident should matter to everyone is this: How we behave toward animals reflects how we behave toward anyone who is not in a position to fight back. Nala's senseless killing doesn't just tell us how the police mishandle animal complaints, but also speaks of a police culture of violence, impatience and impunity toward anyone or anything perceived as being uncooperative or in the way.

This time it was a dog, but next time it could be a homeless man sleeping on a park bench, or your drunken college son jaywalking near Hopkins who is manhandled or killed. We have to demand accountability from the mayor and police chief, and make it clear that needless violence will not be tolerated from those who are pledged to serve and protect all citizens, whether that violence is directed toward animals or people.

Ask Nala's owner how well served and protected she feels right about now.

Lori K. Brown is a Web developer who lives in Catonsville. Her email is lorikay20902@yahoo.com.

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