Legal challenge halts SFPD jurisdiction over dog attacks on federal land

Dog owners beware — canine attacks are now consequence-free on federal land in San Francisco.

While civil suits can still be pursued against dog owners for furry fracases, the canines themselves cannot be turned in to criminal authorities in the event that their teeth should sink into the flesh of their fellows within the boundaries of a national park.

The San Francisco Police Department’s vicious and dangerous dog unit is The City’s go-to canine court. It holds hearings to determine consequences for dangerous dogs, including, in extreme cases, euthanization. However, that agency no longer carries jurisdiction over dog skirmishes on federal land.

Importantly, the National Park Service, U.S. Park Police and Golden Gate National Recreation Area have no such mechanisms, and hold no such proceedings, for dogs.

And also importantly, federal agencies control abundant park space in our fair city: The Presidio, Fort Mason, Crissy Field, and Fort Funston are all popular haunts for our four-legged friends and their owners.

It wasn’t always the case that dogs could get off scot-free after a bite in those areas. Previously, the feds relied on San Francisco’s finest. No, this problem developed only within the last year-or-so after a legal challenge halted an informal agreement between The City and federal authorities that allowed dog cases to be heard by San Francisco police.

It was a handshake agreement, now replete with with sweaty palms.

Ever since that challenge, SFPD, The City Attorney’s Office and the National Park Service have been in talks to finally develop true-blue, written rules in the form of a “memorandum of understanding,” so law and order can return to the animal realm, but talks have stalled, multiple sources confirmed.

So the dog court’s jurisdiction on federal property remains in limbo.

Cases are tossed. Dangerous Rovers roam free.

The revelation came to my attention after a terrifying incident befell one handsome, dark-furred doggo, Bruno.

I found myself sitting in a CrossFit gym attic in mid-November as Danielle Rabkin’s Doberman puppy, Bruno, sweetly nuzzled his nose against my leg. The one-year-old, roughly 70-pound pup sniffed me vigorously, and then playfully rolled about the attic of Rabkin’s business on Van Ness Avenue.

Like any puppy, Bruno is full of pep and vigor. But just weeks prior, he was close to death.

In August, Rabkin ran into an acquaintance I will not name (and whose name is redacted in SFPD records) who owns a golden retriever while on a walk through Fort Mason. The grassy hill, replete with a jaw-dropping view of the Golden Gate Bridge, is a common enough spot for off-leash dogs to roam, although that is technically against the rules. Then again, when has that ever stopped a dog owner from letting their pup roam?

The retriever’s owner told Rabkin the pup had previously been aggressive. But after talking it over with Rabkin, the pair decided the two dogs could try playing together.

It quickly turned ugly. After some playful roughhousing, the golden retriever began to viciously bite Bruno, Rabkin claims.

The two owners split on the cause.

In a transcription of an SFPD vicious and dangerous dog unit hearing in October, Rabkin said the other dog bit Bruno thirteen times and was aggressive. The dog’s owner did not dispute this but claimed the two dogs went “back and forth,” and that his animal was only bite-prone because it had not yet been neutered — the procedure was postponed for medical reasons — and that infections Bruno later sustained may not have been related to those bites. Rabkin fervently disagreed.

What is not in dispute is this: Bruno later had infected abscesses at the site of those bites that needed draining. He spent weeks on antibiotics and eventually had to undergo surgery.

That abscess “was pretty rough to see,” the golden retriever’s owner admitted to the hearing officer.

Sky-high medical bills of $15,000 followed.

“If you had asked me how much I’d spend at the vet to save my dog’s life, I hadn’t ever thought I’d spend that much,” Rabkin told me.

But spend she did. Bruno’s injuries were numerous.

Public records I obtained from the San Francisco Police Department detailed the aftermath. A veterinarian described puncture wounds on his neck, hives on the top of his head, and scabbed-over puncture wounds across Bruno’s body.

Rabkin said she was terrified.

“He was screaming for his life,” Rabkin said. The golden retriever “bit him over, and over, and over.”

While an old journalism adage holds that only a “man-bites-dog” story merits writing, because dogs that bite people and others dogs aren’t news— it’s what came for Rabkin next that makes this story worth telling.

At the end of the October hearing, the presiding hearing officer, Janelle Caywood, asked SFPD Officer Ryan Crockett — the police department’s sole cop in the vicious and dangerous dog unit — for his opinion on the hearing.

This is routine. In these hearings, Crockett’s role is to act much like a prosecutor in criminal court, representing the interest of “The People.” Notably, these decisions don’t involve financial remuneration — money isn’t the goal. Instead, the decisions often involve instituting a restriction on the dog, like walking them only during certain hours. The dog may also be humanely euthanized.

“Due to the damage and reading what I’ve read,” Crockett said, the golden retriever should perhaps get a “vicious and dangerous designation” but be allowed to come back in a few years, once it is neutered, for the owners to appeal the decision.

“Even though both dogs were off-leash and roughhousing together?” Caywood asked. “Yeah, but one over-reacted,” Crockett replied.

In any other dog interaction, a decision would soon have been rendered. Open and shut.

But on November 1, the hearing officer rendered a “decision” to render no decision at all.

“The undersigned determined that the City and County of San Francisco does not have jurisdiction to render a decision in this matter because Fort Mason is National Park Service land,” Caywood wrote. “The undersigned does not have territorial jurisdiction to decide vicious and dangerous dog hearings when the underlying incident occurs on federal land.”

Since 2017, the vicious and dangerous dog unit has seen over 400 cases. There have been 12 cases in that period from Crissy Field, but SFPD did not include stats for Fort Mason, the Presidio or Fort Funston.

Virginia Donohue, the executive director of San Francisco Animal Care and Control, told me SFPD used to routinely deal with these matters on federal land. But one dog owner on the losing side of one of these decisions appealed it on the grounds that San Francisco had no jurisdiction on federal land, and won.

That led the City Attorney’s Office and National Park Service to start talks to formalize SFPD’s jurisdiction over dog attacks on federal land, but those talks are at a standstill.

“It basically just stalled,” Donohue told me.

Animal Care and Control still picks up strays on federal property. “On a practical basis, there’s a lost dog, you’ve gotta take the dog,” she said.

“I think it would be good to get resolved, but I think it’s in the Park Service’s court at this point,” she said.

City Attorney’s Office spokesperson John Cote agreed the feds are the ones holding the leash.

“San Francisco is happy to allow our federal partners to participate in our program for addressing dangerous dogs,” Cote said in a statement. “We are awaiting the federal government’s resolution of an internal concern. We cannot speculate on any timeline for finalizing an agreement.”

Repeated emails and phone calls I made to the National Park Service over the course of November went unanswered.

As for Rabkin, the process left her frustrated. While it is true, she has sought financial help with Bruno’s medical bills, any recompense from the golden retriever’s owner will ultimately only come from a civil lawsuit.

The point of the dog hearing, she said, was to simply put on-record that another dog attacked her own. If it happened again, only then would consequence for that golden retriever escalate.

“As far as I’m concerned, The City of San Francisco should want records of vicious dogs. The City should care that this gets logged in some way,” she said. “I was speechless.”

For now, that process is broken. The hearings meant to curb ferocious Fidos remain mired in governmental morass, tail wagging fruitlessly, with no resolution in sight.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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