ATLANTA – When the doorbell rang, Jane, a black Labrador retriever, alerted her owners, Matthew and Kelley Rodriguez, that someone was at the door. But when the door opened, their hearts were shattered.
On Nov. 10, 2013, two Atlanta Police officers were on the other side of their door responding to an accidentally dialed 911 call. Jane and the family’s other dog ran out the door and Officer Brian Carswell, who claimed in the police report that he was startled, shot their beloved, 2-year-old family pet, in the head. He stated in the report, that he fell, injuring his knee, and asked the dog’s owners to call Jane off. But, the family disputes those claims.
Jane died at the veterinarian’s office.
In an effort to decrease and prevent officer-involved dog shootings, as well as dog attacks on people and animal cruelty cases, the Atlanta Police Department has developed a new initiative on safety when it comes to encountering animals on the job.
Senior police officer, Amy Soeldner, the APD’s new animal cruelty liaison officer, will help train other officers on how to approach and deal with animals.
“SPO Soeldner’s passion toward animal welfare will be a true asset for the people of the City of Atlanta will surely benefit people and animals alike,” Chief Erika Shields said.
Soeldner has been training the department since January 2015, focusing on animal cruelty and aiming to reduce the number of lethal dog shootings by APD officers. In the 2 ½ years before training, 28 dogs were shot and four of those were killed.
In the 2 ½ years since training began, officers shot 15 dogs, killing none.
The Rodriguez family, who said in 2013 that they requested more animal training for police officers, have filed a half-million-dollar lawsuit against the department for the death of their dog. And the newly announced APD position brings them no further solace for their loss that happened four years ago.
Matthew, who still resides with his family in Atlanta, is cautiously optimistic about the new role for the APD.
“That's encouraging,” he said.
However, he said, there were already guidelines in place that were not being followed when their dog was shot.
“The department of justice has guidelines on how police officers supposed to interact with dogs. It's a federal guideline.”
However, he is hoping that no other family has to suffer like his has.
“We'd love to see the number of police shootings of canines decrease across metro Atlanta,” Matthew said.
Soeldner will also address dog attacks on people—especially after the January 2017 attack that left a 6-year-old boy dead and a 5-year-old girl severely injured.
Syrai Sanders fought for her life after dogs attacked her and two other children— killing 6-year-old Logan Braatz.
Fulton County Animal Control said the dogs responsible for the attack were a pit bull mix, a border collie and an unidentified breed.
“The horrific attack on these children in January underscored the need to hold owners accountable for the proper care and restraint of their dogs,” Shields said. “We simply cannot tolerate irresponsible ownership of dogs, or cruelty toward any animal in the city. I truly believe there is a direct correlation between how a person treats animals and their propensity toward violence against humans.”
The dog’s owner, Cameron Tucker, was taken into custody following the fatal attack and charged with two counts of reckless conduct. However, the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office upgraded the charges against him to involuntary manslaughter and one charge of reckless conduct.
One dog was shot and another was taken into custody.
Georgia lawmakers introduced a bill in 2015, that would prohibit cities or counties from banning specific breeds of dogs, like pit bulls. While the bill passed the Senate, it never made it to the House for a vote. Some local governments, however, still have laws banning certain breeds.
Soeldner, who joined APD in 1995, will work with officers, investigators, prosecutors, government agencies and the community to investigate animal cruelty crimes, such as abuse and hoarding. She will work with officers to educate them on the links between animal cruelty and other violent crime, like domestic abuse.
“I have no doubt that enforcement and education around animal cruelty issues will improve the quality of life for animals and people alike,” Soeldner said.
Since 2012, the APD has had 76 counts of animal cruelty--last year, in 2016, there were 14 charged.
Atlanta City Council member, Carla Smith works with the APD regarding animal welfare and helped create the position.
“This position fosters a relationship with the communities, the police and the courts in sending a strong message that cruelty to animals is a crime that will not be tolerate or overlooked” Smith said. “This position can also help create safer communities for children and the elderly. Loose animals and irresponsible pet owners are common in many neighborhoods and I’m pleased that SPO Soeldner will help give voice to those concerned about these issues.”