Duke was a good dog,” Raymond Jojola said, his voice trembling. “He was Santana’s dog, so he had to be.”
Santana was the three-year-old son of Jojola’s best friend, Esther Ioane. Both, along with one of the family dogs, perished in a fire on April 17 that ripped through a unit of the Sunnydale public housing complex in Visitacion Valley. The only survivor was the second family dog, a 13-month-old male pit bull mix puppy named Duke. Left without an owner, Jojola took Duke in.
On April 23, San Francisco police officers responded to Sunnydale on a domestic violence call in a building approximately 80 feet away from Jojola’s residence. In the police report, Officer Karl Ma says that he and six other officers were at the scene. “As I went to the front door to attempt to make contact with the other party, Ofc. Dominguez and Ofc. Hart went around the building to cover the rear door,” he says. “I heard numerous gun shots from the other side of the building … Ofc. Dominguez advised me that he had discharged his firearm at an off leash pitbull that advanced toward him and Ofc. Hart in an aggressive manner.”
Officer Ma later says that he spoke to Jojola, who “apologized for Duke charging at the officers,” and that Jojola said, “Duke ran out the front door off leash and charged the officers.” But Jojola and other Sunnydale residents tell a very different story.
“We just got back from the wake,” Jojola said in a phone interview. “Duke was in the living room. People were coming in and out and the door was open. Duke got spooked when he heard the commotion and ran outside, and I followed him to bring him back in the house. I was right behind him, calling his name, and all of a sudden there was a gunshot, which scared him; he was heading back to me — his back was to the police — when there was a bunch more shots. I think it was the second or third shot that got him in the backside.”
Other people with Jojola during the interview corroborated his story, saying they witnessed Duke returning to the house after the first gunshot, but that numerous shots were fired after that (something Officer Ma also says in his report), and it was one of those subsequent shots that hit him. The residents were also concerned that so many people, including children, were in the vicinity. “There were a lot of people around who could have been shot, too,” one woman said. “My stepson was right there when they were shooting,” said another.
In the police report, the type of incident is listed as “stray or vicious dog,” but Duke was neither stray nor vicious. According to behavior assessment notes obtained by the Marina Times from San Francisco Animal Care and Control (ACC), Duke was a sweet, loving dog who showed no signs of aggression at all. “Duke is awesome. He is [a] very gentleman type. I have never heard his barking in the kennel or outside,” one volunteer said. “He loves fetch and always drops the tennis ball in front of me … He loves treats and takes gently from my hand … He does sit, down and shake paw,” said another. All of the observers stated that Duke had no reaction to other dogs, loved people, loved head scratches, and, as one recalled, “liked to sit with his head on Brad’s knee (and drool!).” Repeatedly, volunteers pointed out that Duke was a gentle soul. “He’s an all-around good dog and I felt comfortable going into his kennel,” one volunteer observed. “It was horrible to hear what happened to him — I really hope he’s doing OK.”
Due to all of Duke’s positive behavior feedback, ACC wanted to put him up for adoption. Unfortunately, the
bullet mangled one of Duke’s back legs, rendering it useless, so he required an amputation before that could happen. Jojola, who said he only wanted what was best for Duke, surrendered him to ACC. It seemed a puppy that couldn’t catch a break in his short 13 months of life was finally about to have things go his way, but it was not to be: Duke died on the operating table during surgery.
Duke was the third dog in as many months shot by SFPD; all three dogs died. Two of the dogs were shot in the back. (The third was with a transient who was squatting at a public housing building in the Potrero Hill neighborhood.) Officer Dominguez, who shot Duke, said that Duke was “charging aggressively,” but it doesn’t take a genius to realize that can’t be possible, because a charging dog would be shot in the front of his body, not the back. Perhaps the police think Duke was just another pit bull in the projects and no one will care, but as a pit bull owner, I care, and anyone who has a dog should care, too. If the police come through your backyard chasing a suspect and your dog gets in the way, it’s likely they will shoot first and ask no questions later, which has been their modus operandi in all three recent incidents. The fact that numerous shots were fired — not only at a retreating Duke, but also in the direction of people — strikes me as out of control and reckless.
When Oakland’s police faced a public relations backlash after shooting several dogs and a fawn, they turned to San Francisco’s renowned Vicious and Dangerous Dog Unit, headed by Officer John Denny. Along with ACC, Denny assembled guidelines for their department on how to recognize signs of aggression (as opposed to scared or nervous barking and other standard dog behaviors) and to teach officers how to deal with the dogs (discharging a firearm is a last resort).
I called Captain David Lazar, former head of the San Francisco Police Academy, and asked him why the department didn’t include such training for its officers, especially in light of the recent spate of dog shootings. He told me that they currently do no training on how to deal with dogs for new recruits, and that they have “tentative” plans to add it to their continued professional training program — in January 2015.