New Minneapolis police controversy: Dogs shot without reason?

One Minneapolis police officer may face murder charges in a shooting for which he and his partner neglected to activate their body cams. Another may find himself in hot water after the release of footage from his body cam. The footage appears to contradict the assertions by Officer Michael Mays that two dogs “charged” at him before he shot both while responding to a security-alarm call at the residence. However, there is important context for this response that body cams cannot capture:

The Star Tribune reports on the sudden shift in the dispute after the body cam footage release:

Body camera video from a Minneapolis police officer who shot and seriously wounded two dogs in a residential backyard not only shows the best view yet of the animals’ temperament and movements during the encounter, but the officer is heard moments later apologizing to a sobbing resident while declaring his love for dogs. …

Mays’ initial report filed that same night contended that the dogs, which he described as large pit bulls, “charged at” him. The police union defended Mays, contending that the first dog growled as it advanced toward him.

LeMay and her attorney, Mike Padden, have scoffed at that version of events, and have called for Mays to be prosecuted for filing a false report. They also suggested Mays be disciplined, possibly even fired.

At a news conference Thursday afternoon in north Minneapolis, where Padden made the officer’s body camera video available to other media outlets, the attorney said the imagery makes it obvious that Mays shot with the intention to kill.

The audio on that video does not start until after the shooting, which may be a problem for Mays. He didn’t activate the body cam until after he fired the shots, and the first 30 seconds were recorded on automatic loop with only the video. Given that Mays insists that the dog was growling as it “charged,” that audio would be key to his justification for lethal force.

However, the dog appears to have only been walking tentatively toward him when Mays fired. The dog did not bare its teeth in an aggressive manner either, but that does not necessarily mean it wasn’t growling, or at least grumbling, as it approached. The second dog clearly does come charging around the house, responding possibly to the cries of the first dog after the shooting. The second shooting might not have been necessary without the first, and the first does not appear to look like a charging, out-of-control pet. Mays may have a tough time justifying this, although so far the police union stands behind Mays.

That all misses some critical context in this situation. The owner why Mays was in the backyard at all, rather than checking in with the resident first on the alarm. That question is easy to answer, and likely explains why Mays was ready to fire so quickly. The resident entered the wrong code on the keypad, and that would send a hold-up alarm rather than a burglary signal. Having been on both ends of that alarm signal, I can personally testify that police take that very seriously as a potential hostage situation, and they come with guns out and expecting trouble. That doesn’t mean an officer can fire without reasonable fear of his life, but that context is still part of discerning that issue.

The attorney representing the dog’s owner accused Mays of changing his story to fit the surveillance video:

Padden alleged Thursday that the officer took “full advantage” of the lack of audio early on “because he knows in the first 30 seconds his audio isn’t activated.”

In a supplement to his initial report stating the dogs charged at him, Mays said, “After firing the first shot, I observed a larger size blue nose pit bull come rushing towards me from inside the residence.”

Mays’ initial report offered a “different story” from the supplemental information because, Padden alleged, the officer learned about the surveillance videos and was attempting to corroborate his story with what was revealed on camera.

This may still not have become a larger story if not for the shooting of Justine Damond this past weekend. That has no body cam or dashboard video or audio to help explain what happened, and the officer involved has refused to talk with investigators. The two shootings together give an impression of a trigger-happy environment in Minneapolis, and with the shooting of Philando Castile last year, more broadly in the Twin Cities. Given the nature of the alarm call, that may be an unfair characterization in this case. Unfortunately, the body cam footage will not fully satisfy the questions raised in this shooting, but at the least it does not appear to be as inexplicable as the Justine Damond shooting.

The dogs survived the shooting, but are not in good shape and will require thousands of dollars in veterinary care, according to Livingstone. Police chief Janeé Harteau offered to help cover the bills, but the family’s attorney probably has something a little more adversarial in mind.

Addendum: Just to remind people that policing is dangerous work for lots of reasons, Jenn Jazques has video of a vehicular attack on two Indiana police officers who tried to make a traffic stop. Needless to say, the body cam footage shows why these two officers won’t face any disciplinary action for firing their weapons.