Evan DuCharme/Special to The S.F. ExaminerVolunteer Carole McGoldrickel shuts a kennel door at Animal Care and Control on Sunday. The agency aids the Police Department’s vicious dog unit

Future of vicious dog unit uncertain with lead officer's departure

With 823 incidents of reported dog bites last year, the Police Department’s vicious dog unit has kept itself busy. But the upcoming retirement of the police officer in charge of the unit, which has also operated for nearly two years without an investigator, has supporters worried that its days are numbered.

While Officer John Denny will soon preside over his final hearing regarding a vicious dog, he is unsure about the future of the Vicious and Dangerous Dog Unit he helped design with his since-retired partner, Sgt. Bill Herndon.

“I don’t know. No one talked to me one way or another,” Denny said of the unit’s future. “There used to be two people in here. Now we are down to one.”

And that uncertainty is troubling dog advocates who praise Denny for his knowledge of dog behavior and fairness when handling the hundred or so hearings he presides over every year. Rebecca Katz, director of Animal Care and Control in The City, said Denny has “helped us to not have these incidents like what happened to Diane Whipple.”

There was a time when police reports on dog bites were not taken, or if they were, not much was done with them and emergency dispatch wouldn’t send out officers to scenes of dog bites, Denny said.

But everything changed after the 2001 mauling death of Whipple in the hallway of her apartment building by two Presa Canarios. The case led to greater enforcement addressing aggressive dogs, Denny notes.

In his last six months on the job, Denny continues to serve as the hearing officer, but also has to do some investigative work since the investigator position has been left unfilled for nearly two years.

Dog care advocate Sally Stephens, who also serves as chairwoman of the Animal Control and Welfare Commission, is waging an effort to support the unit amid the doubts about its future.

Stephens suggested there is an attitude among the Police Department’s higher-ups that the unit’s work is not as important as narcotics and burglary cases, but she said failing to actively address aggressive dogs is a public safety matter deserving investment.

Her commission agreed and has signed on to a letter calling on the department to “maintain a properly staffed unit with a police officer as investigator and either a second police officer or a contracted person as hearing officer.”

Last year, Denny held 119 vicious dog court hearings. Among the cases, he ordered four canines to be euthanized, of which two were actually killed; 19 others were deemed vicious and dangerous, where they must be leashed and wear muzzles when outdoors.

Katz said her Animal Care and Control staff has tried helping out with investigations but doesn’t have the resources to assist full time. She was not aware of the Police Department’s plan for the unit.

“It appears the succession plan is it to fall onto us, but I don’t know that we can do that,” Katz said.

And she said the situation puts her agency in a compromising position.

“We specifically don’t want to be making the decision about dogs because we also have to carry out the order,” she said.

Denny believes the investigative job requires the authority of a cop.

“When I had time to do the actual investigations I would find myself in some pretty scary places, knocking on some pretty scary doors looking for some pretty scary dogs and dealing with some pretty scary people,” he said. “And if I didn’t have a gun, a badge and a bulletproof vest and a radio, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

Police Department Officer Albie Esparza responded in an email that the department “will look for a replacement officer” and that “we plan to continue to staff (the unit).”

Watchdogs

The Vicious and Dangerous Dog Unit keeps an eye on problem pets.

Estimated number of dogs in San Francisco: 120,000

Number of recorded incidents in 2012 of a dog biting a human or another animal: 823

Court hearings about vicious dogs in 2012: 119

Canines required to wear muzzles and be on leashes: 19

Number of dogs ordered euthanized: 4

Number of dogs actually euthanized: 2

Source: Police Department Vicious and Dangerous Dog Unit

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