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Keep Baltimore’s Animal Abuse Unit

Former Orioles outfielder Adam Jones once appeared in an ad as part of the "Show Your Soft Side" anti-animal abuse campaign.
Former Orioles outfielder Adam Jones once appeared in an ad as part of the "Show Your Soft Side" anti-animal abuse campaign. (Handout photo)

The Sun recently reported on a new staffing plan that recommends the Baltimore Police Department hire nearly 300 additional officers and 100 civilians, as well as double the number of internal affairs investigators. Alexander Weiss Consulting developed the plan in accordance with the city’s consent decree with the Department of Justice. While the recommendations are, for the most part, welcome and necessary, I disagree with part of the recommendations.

The plan recommends closing the animal abuse unit and reassigning the detective assigned to the unit elsewhere. The Baltimore police should reject this myopic recommendation. Baltimore has made enormous strides in combating sadistic crimes against animals, thanks to the experience, dedication and skill of one accomplished detective. After a decade of steadfast effort and progress, Baltimore cannot afford to return to its shameful past.

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Problems were illuminated in the spring of 2009, when a dog named Phoenix was soaked in accelerant and set on fire in broad daylight in West Baltimore. A patrol officer observed smoke rising from West Presbury Street and extinguished the flames with her sweater. Phoenix suffered severe burns over 95% of her body and was humanely euthanized several days later. The crime sparked public outcry and garnered national attention, prompting then-Mayor Sheila Dixon to create an anti-animal abuse task force, which continues to meet, now in the form of a permanent commission.

While the responding officer in Phoenix’s case acted with extraordinary heroism, the police discarded the officer’s sweater and other evidence at the crime scene, and failed to investigate the case for six days. The department’s failure to do its job compromised the prosecution of the case and the defendants were ultimately acquitted after two jury trials. Baltimore knew virtually nothing about responding to these felonies, but the mayor’s task force was lucky to have guidance from a world-renowned cruelty expert, Randall Lockwood, the ASPCA’s senior vice president for forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects.

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In its initial 2010 Report, the task force concluded that Baltimore Police should designate three officers to investigate cases of animal cruelty and dog fighting. Notably, of its 47 recommendations, it deemed this the “single most important recommendation for eradicating animal cruelty.” While the police department has never staffed its animal abuse unit adequately, Baltimore has nonetheless made progress and has witnessed more than 20 dog-fighting arrests alone since its inception. Moreover, the department has been receptive to other recommendations, has worked closely with the city’s animal control office, and currently has a stellar detective, who has served since 2017.

Remarkably, the Weiss Plan recommends that this detective be reassigned, despite calling for an additional 300 officers to the force. The proposal would abolish Baltimore’s ability to respond effectively to these crimes, as animal enforcement officers lack authority to make arrests or even carry guns. Moreover, the recommendation conflicts with the nationwide trend of committing resources to investigate these crimes. For example, New York, Atlanta, Norfolk, Fairfax County, El Paso, Dallas, and Las Vegas have created animal abuse units.

The Weiss Plan also ignores overwhelming evidence of the nexus between animal cruelty and other violent crime. According to oft-quoted studies, animal abusers are five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people than non-abusers and 82% of offenders have prior convictions for battery, weapons or drugs. In 2016, the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System began collecting detailed animal cruelty data regarding gross neglect, torture, organized abuse and sexual abuse from nearly 7,000 law enforcement agencies. The data revealed that 60% of offenders had a history of interpersonal violence and nearly half were arrested for subsequent crimes. These cases are a red flag and present unique challenges to law enforcement for the obvious reason that animals can’t speak.

As such, animal abuse and child abuse investigations are similar and demand specialized detectives. Baltimore’s sole animal abuse detective is effective and should continue in his current assignment. The Weiss Plan erroneously concludes that Baltimore need not devote a dedicated officer to investigate the torture and killing of dogs and cats. Aside from the fact that these crime victims deserve protection in their own right, it is derelict to disregard the overwhelming evidence regarding the nexus between animal cruelty and violent crime, as well as warnings from experts to investigate these crimes zealously.

Want to reduce violent crime, Baltimore? Keep your Animal Abuse Unit.

Caroline A. Griffin (cag@carolineagriffin.com) is former chair of the mayor’s anti-animal abuse advisory commission.

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