Political Animal

Homeless dogs of Golden Gate Park: A tragedy waiting to happen

The lost and found residents of Golden Gate Park (photo: franco folini / flickr)

On Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 at 10:40 p.m., San Francisco police responded to a 911 call about a dog attack in progress at 25th Avenue and Lincoln Way at a homeless encampment near Golden Gate Park. When officers arrived, they found two pit bull mixes, a white female named Cleo and a black male named Frisco, running around, barking nervously. A homeless man had been badly bitten, he said, after the dogs’ owner left them in his custody. Another man riding a bike who tried to stop the attack was also bitten. Police summoned Animal Care and Control (ACC), but because they are severely understaffed, only one officer, Pete Flores, was on duty. When he arrived and was unable to secure the dogs with catchpoles, he called Lt. Denise Bongiovanni for backup, who got out of bed to rush to the scene. Meanwhile, Flores took off through the bushes after the dogs.

DOG SHOT WITH ASSAULT RIFLE

According to the police report, 20 minutes went by as police lined up, guns drawn. During this time, Frisco returned to the scene, where he climbed up on a picnic table and lay down on his owner’s belongings. At that point, Capt. Mark Osuna authorized one of the officers to “stop the threat.” The officer says he “shot the dog in the back” from 100 feet away with his assault rifle, severely wounding him. As Frisco writhed in agonizing pain, the officer approached the picnic table and, using his pistol, shot him in the head. Eventually Cleo was captured and taken into custody, and it was later discovered that Frisco was not the aggressor and, in fact, had caused none of the injuries to either man.

WHO’S AT FAULT?

This story is a tragedy for Frisco, but it is also a cautionary tale of human tragedy waiting to happen. Several years ago I wrote an editor’s note for Northside San Francisco magazine called “The thugs who run Haight Street,” in which I pointed out that a lot of the homeless kids living in Golden Gate Park aren’t the happy hippies of the past, but rather hardened and often violent criminals. I called upon the police and the Board of Supervisors to get a grip on the situation, particularly the packs of unaltered dogs these thugs keep for protection.

So it was no surprise when I discovered that the man who “owned” Cleo and Frisco has an extensive, violent criminal history and a rap sheet a mile long. Ultimately, he is to blame for the men’s injuries, for Cleo being euthanized, and for Frisco’s horrific death.

But lawmakers and the police also bear some responsibility. It’s no secret that ACC has a severe budget shortage, and San Francisco’s budget committee left them out of their budget again last year. According to Supervisor Scott Wiener, who is trying to get more money for ACC in the upcoming budget, there are only 11 ACC officers to patrol the city 24 hours a day, and only one officer on at night. Had there been two to three ACC officers on patrol the night of Jan. 28, Frisco would likely not be dead.

DEADLY FORCE ONLY AS LAST RESORT

The embarrassingly poor handling of the situation by the police is, I’m sure, something San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr would like to see go away. The fact that Frisco was shot in the back while lying down on a picnic table tells me that he was in no way aggressing toward the 20 officers standing in front of him with guns drawn. I don’t think Capt. Osuna would give the command to stop the threat if a human suspect dropped the weapon, put hands on head, and lay down on the ground.

Officer John Denny, who presides over San Francisco’s Vicious and Dangerous Dog Court, says there are written guidelines for handling vicious dogs. “After Oakland dealt with P.R. nightmares like shooting a dog in the backyard of a home that was being burglarized and shooting a fawn in a resident’s bushes, we put it in writing. Deadly force is always the last resort,” Denny says. He also pointed out that all SFPD sergeants and patrol officers have attended a one-hour class about how to handle aggressive dogs. However, no one from the command staff, including Capt. Osuma and Chief Suhr, has ever attended the class.

IRRESPONSIBLE OWNERS

Denny also agrees that the unaltered homeless dog population in Golden Gate Park and the types of people who keep them are a problem. “With an owner like that, Frisco and Cleo never had a chance. It’s my understanding that Frisco was born in Golden Gate Park and he fathered Cleo. So you’ve got irresponsible inbreeding going on there and they just keep having more and more puppies.” The majority of the dogs born and bred in the park are pit bull mixes because, Denny says, “they are the dogs of choice for these guys. They’re big and strong and loyal and they’re eager to please their owners. I’m actually a huge fan of the breed, but you can’t just leave them in a backyard or give them no exercise or attention.”

Denny also says pit bulls tend to get the worst of the worst when it comes to owners. “Look at the Nicholas Faibish case,” he said, recounting the tragic death of the 12 year old in 2005. “His father used to kick the dogs apart because he didn’t want the female mating with the male dog in the house, only with the male dog in the backyard. When Nicholas went in that basement, he tried to kick the dogs apart — he was imitating his father — and that’s when they attacked him.”

LAW ENFORCEMENT LACKING

It’s illegal to have unaltered pit bulls or to breed pit bulls in San Francisco, but because of the shortage of animal control officers, enforcing the law is difficult.

The fact that people with long, violent rap sheets are inbreeding litter after litter is an ominous sign that the Board of Supervisors, the budget committee, and the SFPD need to pay attention to immediately. If ACC can’t afford to hire more animal control officers, and the SFPD continues to ignore the problem until they get a 911 call, the next tragedy in the park will likely involve a human being — and I don’t want to be the one who says, “I told you so.”

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