It’s been almost a decade since 33-year-old Diane Whipple was mauled to death by two Presa Canario dogs, but the uncommon case magnified the presence of the San Francisco Police Department’s Vicious and Dangerous Animal Unit.
Had Whipple known about the unit — that Sgt. William Herndon and Officer John Denny had been operating together for more than seven years — she could have reported sooner Bane and Hera’s bullying snarls, possibly dodging the 77 bites that caused her to bleed to death.
“I heard there was not a piece of clothing left on her. I can’t think of a more horrific way to die,” Denny said. “But had somebody made a minor police report, who knows, she might still be alive today.”
The unit filed 383 reports last year and 92 of them were subject to dog court in City Hall, with Herndon as the presiding judge.
“We’re not here to try to put the blame on anybody,” Herndon said minutes before a weekly hearing. “It’s simply an informal, problem-solving exercise to come up with remedies to prevent it from going too far.”
Nala was the defendant in that hearing. She’s a 1-year-old pit bull from Portero Hill whose neighbors said she jumps the fence of her backyard and scares them back into their homes.
After two hours of listening to the back-and-forth of three neighbors and the dog owner, skimming pictures of paw prints in their backyards and asking questions like, “How do you think I should solve this problem?” Herndon made his final decision.
Nala was banished from the backyard until the dog’s owner, Michelle Seymore, built a sufficient barricade.
“Yeah, I think it’s bogus,” Seymore said after the hearing. “Nala doesn’t want to hurt anyone. She’s just a 1-year-old puppy who gets excited. But I’ll agree with putting up a fence.”
Denny and Herndon said they were asked to cover their first case together in 1993 because a man whose dogs were seized for terrorizing the neighborhood broke into the kennel with a gun and took them back.
Since then, their judgment days have been featured on the Animal Planet cable TV channel and written about in several publications, and they have dictated hundreds of rulings.
To this day, they said the most common form of prevention has always tugged on the nerves of quintessential San Francisco: Keep the dogs on a leash.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it,” Denny said. “It’s the old open garage door. Shredder comes out and if he’s really lucky he’s going to see the mail man and ka-pow! Then that’s where it starts.”
Statistics on vicious and dangerous dogs for 2009:
383 Bites reported (unit predicts only half are reported)
281 Incidents investigated
137 Hearings requested
4 Cases dismissed
19 Dogs not deemed vicious and dangerous
31 Dogs not deemed vicious and dangerous but with restrictions ordered
27 Dogs deemed vicious and dangerous
6 Dogs deemed vicious and dangerous and euthanized
5 Dogs euthanized voluntarily (by owner) prior to hearing
10 Seizure orders issued
6 Owners ordered to not own or have custody of any dog for three years
Source: Vicious and Dangerous Dog Unit