Willy Pete, the Mason County dog shot by a State Police trooper in late June, was the 15th dog troopers have killed in the last four years — and the third dog that Sgt. S.T. Harper has killed in that span, according to police records.
Almost all of those dogs, 13 of 15, were pit bulls that were acting aggressively, according to the State Police.
Only one other officer in the State Police, a Sgt. Curran, has been involved in more than one dog killing in the last four years, according to police records.
“Based upon the facts, each of these members acted reasonably in order to protect themselves or others, including WVSP K-9 officers, from being attacked,” Lt. Michael Baylous, a State Police spokesman, said in an emailed statement.
Baylous said the number of dogs killed is low, considering the huge number of interactions that State Police troopers have with the public.
On June 24, Willy Pete was shot three times in front of his home as officers were conducting a nearby manhunt.
His owner, Ginger Sweat, told the Charleston Daily Mail that he was an arthritic beagle-Bassett hound mix, and that the dog was retreating and she was running to get him when Harper shot the dog.
The State Police initially refused to comment on the incident but several days later released a lengthy statement telling a different story. The State Police apologized for shooting Willy Pete but stood by the decision to shoot him.
The police statement said Sweat retrieved a smaller dog, but that another larger dog, Willy Pete, then advanced aggressively. The police said Harper tried to separate Willy Pete from his K-9 officer but could not, and shot him three times when he came within five feet.
Harper has been part of the State Police K-9 Unit for 14 years and has been a K-9 instructor for the last two years.
The Gazette filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all use-of-force forms related to dogs killed in the last 15 years.
The State Police said it maintains records only for the past four years. It provided summaries of all incidents involving killed dogs for the past four years but did not provide the use-of-force forms themselves.
On Aug. 24, 2010, troopers responded to a complaint of a vicious dog. When they arrived, a pit bull ran toward two troopers. Harper, a corporal at the time, shined a flashlight at the dog, which caused it to stop. The pit bull then charged at another trooper, who fired two shots at it. It’s unclear if either of those shots hit the dog, but Harper then shot once at the dog, killing it.
About a year later, on May 2, 2011, Harper and others responded to calls involving an individual fleeing the scene of an accident, reportedly with drugs and a weapon.
Harper was searching for the person with his K-9, Jerry Lee.
As they approached a trailer, a pit bull charged Jerry Lee. When the pit bull’s owners did not secure their dog after being asked, Harper shot it. It did not die, but was later euthanized by a veterinarian.
Harper was also part of a State Police SWAT team that shot and killed Richard Dale Kohler last year while serving a warrant in Clay County. Police said that Kohler pointed a rifle at them, but Kohler’s family said the 65-year-old couldn’t walk without a cane and could not have held the rifle and the cane at the same time.
Gillespie, who shot and killed 18-year-old Timothy Hill in Mercer County on the night of June 12, has killed two dogs this year.
On Jan. 14, Gillespie was involved with a call that a person had fired a gun toward EMS personnel.
“While trying to locate the individual a large dog approached Sr. Tpr. Gillespie on a small enclosed porch in an aggressive manner,” the police wrote in summarizing the incident. “The officers attempted to deter the dog using verbal commands, the dog became more aggressive with teeth showing and growling therefore Sr. Tpr. Gillespie shot the dog, killing it.”
Other than Willy Pete, that dog was the only dog killed in the last four years that was not identified as a pit bull.
On June 6, just six days before he shot and killed Hill, Gillespie responded to a complaint of a “vicious dog” approaching people walking in their neighborhood.
“The pit bull dog ran toward Sr. Tpr. Gillespie in an aggressive manner,” State Police wrote. “Attempts to deter the dog were unsuccessful. Due to the dog’s aggressiveness, Sr. Tpr. Gillespie shot the pit bull.”
The State Police refused to provide materials used in the training of K-9 handlers, such as Harper. The police said that the information is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act because the request was too broad. They also cited the exemption for records “which are maintained for internal use in matters relating to law enforcement.”
Baylous wrote that all officers are taught to use “the level of force that is reasonably necessary to protect themselves and others.”
In a position paper on dogs killed by law enforcement, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals writes that officers are generally given broad authority to shoot dogs if they feel they are in “imminent danger” or if a dog is attacking people or other pets.
“Policies that require only that an officer ‘feel’ threatened set a very low threshold for justifying the killing of dogs,” the ASPCA writes. “Police rarely receive any training that would allow them to rapidly and realistically assess the degree of danger posed by a dog.”