Committee gives unanimous wags to Dog Protection Act

The Colorado Statesman

Brittany Moore said the awful sound her 4-year-old German Shepherd, Ava, made as an Erie police officer fired a bullet that severed the dog’s spinal cord was all part of the most tragic day of her life.

“Imagine watching your best friend get shot to death,” she said at a rally Wednesday at the Capitol, as tears welled behind her thick sunglasses. “Watching her in agony when she is dying, moaning in pain, and you’re not able to comfort her; not able to hold her until she breathes her last breath; not able to say, ‘I love you’ one last time.”

State Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial, leaves the speakers lectern to join his wife Karen Phillips and their dog Digby.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Moore has become the face of a growing movement to train Colorado police officers in an effort to cut back on seemingly senseless dog shootings by law enforcement. More than 40 such incidents have been reported across the state. Senate Bill 226 — the Dog Protection Act — has been introduced to advance that effort.

State Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, addresses the rally as state Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial, carrying Guzman’s beagle Lula, listens. State Rep Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, is seen in the background.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

The measure received unanimous approval Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was its first hearing and now heads to the Senate floor. Sens. David Balmer, R-Centennial, and Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, and Reps. Lois Court, D-Denver, and Don Coram, R-Montrose, are sponsoring the legislation.

Barbara Millman arrives with a placard as a reminder of the tragic death of Chloe, whose demise was captured on video.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

The measure would require police officers to offer owners an opportunity to save their dog if the officer is responding to a nonviolent call. It would create a volunteer task force, including animal welfare experts, to create a three-hour training webinar. Because the effort is a largely volunteer effort, there is no cost to the state.

ASPCA state legislative director Deborah Foote bears doggie emblems for participants in the Dog Protection Act rally at the Colorado State Capitol.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Moore, 30, is the perfect poster child for the popular measure. Her harrowing incident in May 2011 has brought some of the most emotional testimony to face the legislature this year. Before testifying, Moore joined about 200 dog lovers outside the Capitol. They brought their dogs — big and small — in tow. The crowd cried as she recalled her devastating tale.

Digby and his master, state Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial, enjoy a quiet reunion following the Dog Protection Act rally at the state Capitol on April 3.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

“I watched as Ava, my best friend, was shot in the back by officer Jamie Chester. The rawhide bone fell from Ava’s mouth and she made the most awful sound that I have ever heard, and then immediately fell to the ground,” Moore told the crowd. “She tried to get up one last time, but her hind legs wouldn’t work because her spinal cord was severed…

State Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, shows off an ASPCA doggie in his jacket pocket while waiting for the rally to begin.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

“Our golden retriever went over and was nudging Ava trying to help her,” Moore continued. “Ava fell back on the ground and laid there and died slowly… I will never forget the sounds of my daughters’ torturous cries that night…”

Carol Altvater’s dog, Mik, kisses Suzanne Lively as her dog, Dandy, and Ernie Altvater and his dog Daisy (at left) listen to a speaker at the rally.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Moore was not allowed to comfort Ava in her last moments on earth. Since the incident, her daughters have stopped trusting police officers.

“I raised my girls to trust police officers, that if they ever got lost, to find a police officer and they would help them. Now they don’t trust them,” said Moore.

State Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, and Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, (with her beagle Lula) get the Dog Protection Act rally off to a lively start from the steps of the Colorado State Capitol.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Chester was cleared by the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office in the shooting. Moore has filed a lawsuit against Erie and the officer in federal court.

The department claims that the dog acted aggressively toward Chester, and the officer has reported that the dog flashed its teeth and lunged at him. The department has declined to comment, citing the ongoing lawsuit.

This sign seems to express a major concern of the participants at the rally on Wednesday.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Moore’s tragic story cast a shadow over an otherwise joyous rally on a beautiful day outside the Gold Dome. Citizens walked their best friends on leashes by the west steps as a DJ blasted “Who Let the Dogs Out?” by Baha Men. The crowd carried signs that read, “Gone, but not forgotten!” with photos of Moore kissing Ava.
Balmer brought his German shorthaired pointer, Digby, with him, and Guzman brought her beagle, Lula.

It’s been a long Dog Protection rally for Obie, who rests on a cushion provided by ‘mom’ Laura Hagan, near the Capitol’s west steps.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

“This bill that we’re hearing today is not anti-police,” said Guzman. “It’s pro-cops, pro-dogs, pro-Senate Bill 226, because we want to make sure that the police in the areas in our local communities do everything they can to learn about dog behavior.”

Balmer asked the crowd to symbolically “scratch the grass” in an act of solidarity: “An army of dog lovers started to contact us…” he said. “We’re going to be a giant movement nationwide that began here in Colorado.”

During testimony later in the day, there was no opposition to the measure. It has the support of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, who helped write the bill. The Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police has also been working on the bill, according to Balmer.

“This bill represents an opportunity to make local law enforcement more effective, more efficient, and very frankly, presents another unique opportunity for government to avoid or prevent any potential future liability,” testified Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson.

Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, a member of the Judiciary Committee and a former police officer, was careful to point out that dog shootings by law enforcement are not a common occurrence.

“Is it your experience that the vast majority of law enforcement is dog lovers?” he asked Robinson, fishing for the sheriff to of course say “yes.”

The committee also heard from Gary Branson, whose pit bull, Chloe, was Tasered and fatally shot by a Commerce City police officer in November. Branson told the committee that the incident could have been avoided had the officer been trained.

The shooting received national attention when video of it surfaced on the Internet. The officer, Robert Price, has been charged with felony-aggravated cruelty to animals.

“It’s a shame that a dog could be lost out of someone’s ignorance about how dogs act,” he said. “It’s like losing a family member… there’s no difference to me.”

Jeffrey Justice, a former UPS delivery driver, said he never found a need to shoot a dog in his 14 years, pointing out that he came into contact with multiple dogs every day on his routes. He said he’s not a dog expert, but a little training could go a long way.

“I was charged by dogs many times over those years,” he said. “More times than any Colorado law enforcement officer.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com