Pit bull group won’t roll over
Says city is spending thousands enforcing, defending the city’s ban
Peter Marcus, DDN Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010
Denver continues to spend thousands of dollars paying attorneys to defend and settle lawsuits stemming from the city’s ban on pit bulls.
There are at least eight individuals who have or are currently pursuing or considering lawsuits against the city. Denver resident Desiree Arnold recently won a $5,000 settlement from the city after her dog Coco was killed by animal control officials, according to the mayor’s office. The January settlement also inspired procedural changes to Denver’s ordinance.
The city is also spending thousands of dollars defending itself against a lawsuit filed by pit bull advocate Sonya Dias, who was forced to sell her home in Denver to save her pit bull Gryffindor. City officials have outsourced the case to a private law firm, paying Wells, Anderson & Race, LLC $150 per hour to handle the case. An Open Records request by a member of pit bull advocacy group The Pit Bull Band revealed that Denver has already paid the law firm $4,769 in December and $10,337 in January.
The spending comes as the city deals with a $120 million budget shortfall.
“We’re putting pressure on the city — there’s just going to be more and more,” Dias said of the lawsuits. “This law, it’s old school — it’s yesterday. They’re saying that we have a problem, but instead of identifying what the problem is, they’re just rounding up and killing dogs.”
Denver has killed 2,266 pit bulls since enforcement of the city’s ban resumed in 2005. The number has tapered off over the years, with only 13 killings this year out of 53 impoundments. Animal control officials do not have an explanation for the decrease.
Coco the dog
Coco was one of the dogs killed in 2008. Coco was rounded up from Arnold’s Denver residence in 2003, but released to a third party. After finding out that Coco’s new home was not a safe place for the pit bull to live, Arnold took Coco back in 2008. On June 23, 2008, Coco was seized again.
This time, Coco was scheduled to be killed on June 26, 2008. Arnold requested an administrative hearing, but the hearing was denied because it was the second time Coco had been rounded up. Arnold hired an attorney, Karen Breslin, who fought for Coco. The pit bull somehow was taken off the kill list and a hearing was granted.
But on July 31, 2008, animal control officers testified that Coco was a pit bull prohibited by Denver ordinance. Still, the dog only possessed 11 of the 25 attributes listed on the checklist for pit bulls. The checklist in and of itself has been questioned by pit bull advocates and dog lovers.
Questions were raised in October 2009 over innocent dogs being killed by city officials because they were wrongly identified as being a pit bull. A dog named Dexter was determined to be a pit bull by animal control officers, but an administrative judge ruled that the officials had wrongly labeled the boxer-mix a pit bull. Advocates believe hundreds of dogs may have been wrongly identified.
Coco’s fate was learned on Aug. 5, 2008, when an administrative judge upheld that Coco was a pit bull and therefore prohibited.
Arnold and Breslin asked Doug Kelley, director of Animal Care and Control, to grant Coco release to a rescue facility. But Kelley declined the request, pointing out that policy at the time required animal control to kill pit bulls seized a second time.
“The ordinance really doesn’t even require that the dog is released, so there’s really a policy process on whether the dog is released on a second impoundment and what the situation is because what the ordinance says is that the owner has to provide assurance that the dog won’t come back again,” said Kelley.
On Aug. 6, 2008, Coco was killed and his remains were returned to the Arnold family in a black garbage bag.
But just three weeks later, another pit bull, Forrest, who was seized twice by the city, was granted release to an outside rescue facility. The case received widespread media attention, which is believed to have played a role in Forrest’s release.
Following Forrest’s release, the Department of Environmental Health implemented a new policy extending to all pit bull owners the opportunity to place their seized dogs with reputable shelter facilities — even after a second seizure.
Arnold wonders why she wasn’t given that opportunity after Coco was seized the second time. She says her family still grieves Coco’s death.
“We still talk about him all the time,” said Arnold, pointing out that Coco had never harmed a person or animal. “He was our family dog — I called him my son.”
The January settlement also inspired changes to the city’s ordinance banning pit bulls. Documents are now available to the public and to animal control officers that spell out rules and procedures for when a dog is seized. The documents include operating procedures for animal control officers; a guide for owners when their dog is seized; and an official notice form to dog owners explaining that their dog has been seized.
Another policy change stemming from the settlement requires unanimous agreement from all three animal control evaluators in order to label a dog a pit bull.
Councilwoman Carla Madison finds it “a shame” that the city is spending thousands of dollars enforcing and defending its ordinance. She has proposed a bill that would permit pit bulls if owners take the dog through temperament testing, muzzle it, and pay special licensing and insurance fees, to name a few proposed restrictions. But she has little support from her colleagues.
“Right now I don’t think anybody’s looking at repealing the law, and so I guess they feel like they need to just go ahead and defend what they can,” said Madison. “In time, maybe we can add the Responsible Pit Bull Ownership Act, which might help ease some of these cases so that we might not be in this position. It’s unfortunate that we’re in the position where we now have to defend this law.”
Madison says there’s talk of putting together a task force to work with neighborhood groups about possibly implementing the Responsible Pit Bull Ownership Act.
Support for ban
But Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz says she recently held a survey on the issue, which received 1,839 responses, and 78 percent of her constituents said they were in favor of the ban.
“That’s the will of my voters, so if it takes defending it, I’m willing to defend it,” said Faatz.
Meanwhile, the mayor’s office defended using an outside law firm to defend the ordinance, arguing that the city has for years used Wells, Anderson & Race to assist with cases.
“The firm has been helping the City Attorney’s Office at a time when budget reductions have reduced staffing levels,” said Eric Brown, a spokesman for Mayor John Hickenlooper. “In this particular case, the attorney handling the lawsuit retired and Wells, Anderson & Race took over specific parts of the case on the city’s behalf.”
Brown added that the Arnold settlement was “in the best interest of both parties.”
Expensive to enforce
Pit bull advocates, however, believe the city is spending a quarter of a million dollars per year on enforcing the ban — money they believe would be better spent closing the city’s shortfall. City officials have been unable to provide the Denver Daily News with a cost analysis of how much it costs to enforce the ban, stating that there is no specific line item for the enforcement, and that the cost is part of overall animal control costs.
“The city needs to take another look at this law because it’s not going to stop,” Dias said of the city’s spending to enforce and defend the law. “There are going to be more (lawsuits,) and aside from the monetary impact of it, which of course is huge … this law is an old way of thinking.”