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Task force on animal abuse calls for changes

phoenix3Baltimore could be doing a far better job of protecting its pets and animals, a task force appointed by Mayor Sheila Dixon concludes in an interim report released this week.

Its recommendations include stiffer penalties, stronger laws, greater police involvement, a larger and better equipped animal shelter, improved coordination between city departments and a greater effort to increase public awareness about the problem.

The task force was created after a pit bull was doused with gasoline and set on fire in West Baltimore in May, 2009.

Police Officer Syreeta Teel observed the burning dog on the 1600 block of Presbury Street and extinguished the flames with her sweater. The dog, who was subsequently named Phoenix by her caretakers, suffered severe burns over 95% of her body and died four days later.

The task force was charged with looking at ways to eradicate animal abuse, and dogfighting in particular, in the city; increase awareness of animal cruelty laws; legislation to protect animals and prosecute abusers; and how animal control and law enforcement could better handle animal cruelty cases.

“Our examination into these subject areas has not been all bleak,” the task force reported. “While the Department of Animal Control is in urgent need of assistance and reform, other systems, such as the current system for tracking animal related concerns, operates fairly effectively and needs only minor revamping to track animal cruelty cases.

“And while additional legislation should be enacted to prosecute abusers, on a positive note, the State’s Attorney’s Office of the City of Baltimore has shown great commitment in the prosecution of Travers and Tremayne Johnson, the defendants charged with aggravated animal cruelty in the burning death of Phoenix.”

The report adds: ”The public response to the work of the Task Force has been positive. Public sentiment is changing and a “no tolerance” policy toward animal abuse is emerging. Moreover, it is well recognized that animal abuse is a precursor to violent crime against people …

“If the City of Baltimore seeks to eradicate drug violence, gang violence, child abuse and spousal abuse, it must also eradicate animal abuse, for when one encounters animal abuse or dogfighting, one of the former scourges is likely to be present. Stamping out animal abuse is one of the most effective crime prevention tools available to law enforcement officials.”

You can find the full report on the mayor’s website.

Recommendations in the report call for a better system of reporting and tracking animal abuse, beefing up Animal Control staff, better communication with the city’s social services department about animal abuse cases, and assigning three police officers to work full-time with Animal Control.

Currently, there are no officers assigned to work with the department and no liaison between Animal Control and the Baltimore City Police Department, and no channel of communication to discuss ongoing investigations, the report says.

Animal control officers have no authority to make arrests or carry guns, the report notes, and “must call for police backup when investigating dogfighting or crimes in progress against animals.” Police response times can vary, but can be as long as 40 minutes. “In the interim, witnesses flee, crime scenes are not secured, and evidence degrades.”

Maryland has recently dropped into the bottom tier of states in terms of the strength of its animal cruelty laws, according to the report, which calls for stiffer penalties for animal abuse.

Here is the complete list of recommendations:

1. Animal Control field reports should be revised to allow Animal Enforcement Officers (“AEOs”) to report incidents of: (1) animal neglect, (2) animal abuse, or (3) when the police have been notified. This information should be transmitted to The Mayor’s Office of Information Technology (“MOIT”), which can then track animal neglect and abuse cases. The costs of implementing this recommendation are negligible.

2. The MOIT should grant access to BARCS and the Maryland SPCA to allow them to submit service requests for animal neglect and abuse victims that are surrendered directly to these shelters. Likewise, the Police Department should submit service requests for any animal cruelty cases it investigates directly so that MOIT tracks all animal cruelty cases. The costs of implementing this recommendation are negligible.

3. The MOIT should begin mapping all cases of animal cruelty so that Animal Control and the Baltimore City Police Department (“BCPD”) have readily accessible information regarding where and when the crimes of animal abuse and dogfighting are occurring. The costs of implementing this recommendation are negligible.

4. The online Service Request System should be amended to contain service requests for cases of suspected animal neglect or abuse. This will allow citizens to report animal abuse cases when the 311 Call Center is closed. The costs of implementing this recommendation are negligible.

5. Animal Control and the Department of Social Services – Child Protection Services should consider an interagency agreement whereby social services employees are required to report suspected cases of animal abuse or neglect. An experienced AEO or a humane educator could provide the necessary training to social services employees. The costs of implementing this recommendation are negligible.

6. Given the extremely high correlation between spousal abuse and animal abuse, legislation providing for the protection of pets and service animals in protective orders would be an extremely effective measure to protect victims of abuse, both human and animal. Maryland should continue its efforts to enact such legislation so that animals may also be protected in domestic violence orders.

7. The City should educate the public as to what constitutes animal abuse and why it is so critical to report. Baltimore should utilize the City’s Cable Channel 25 and website to provide detailed information concerning this issue, as well as provide contact information for assistance. Finally, the website and cable channel could explain the link between animal abuse and other types of abuse and crime, as well as provide information regarding local and state anti-cruelty laws. The costs of implementing this recommendation would be negligible.

8. The City of Baltimore needs to clarify how and where to report animal cruelty through its website, cable channel, and through a media campaign. In a nutshell, individuals with information regarding animal neglect or cruelty should call 311; individuals who witness dogfighting or cruelty crimes in progress should call 911. A successful media campaign could include signs on Animal Control vehicle, signs on MTA buses, and billboards. Signs should also be posted in public schools. Finally, the City should repair the neon sign above Animal Control’s office at 301 Stockholm Street. This sign, which is visible from I-295 and I-395, could direct people to report animal cruelty. An effective media campaign that utilized interior advertising on MTA buses for a four-week period would cost approximately $5,000 – $7,500; a campaign that utilized the rear advertising space of MTA buses would cost approximately $15,000 – $18,000; and a campaign that utilized side panels on MTA buses would cost approximately $18,000 – $25,000. The costs for billboard advertising for a 12’ x 25’ sign for a four-week period can range from $900 for a low profile area to $5,000 for a high profile area. Less expensive options include ecoposters, which cost approximately $200 for an eight-week campaign, or premier vinyl panels, which cost approximately $750/year, excluding production costs. A media campaign presents an opportunity for corporate underwriting.

9. The Task Force should evolve into a Mayor’s Commission on Anti-Animal Abuse, so that the work of the Task Force can continue beyond its one-year term. The Commission should be expanded to include a citizen from each legislative district. The Commission would monitor progress in implementing recommended reforms as well as monitor animal abuse and dogfighting in each district. There would be no cost in implementing this recommendation, as the Commission would consist of volunteer members.

10. AEOs should receive, in addition to their training at the East Coast Animal Control Academy, specialized training in forensics and investigative techniques at the police academy. The costs of implementing this recommendation would be negligible.

11. The police academy should provide basic training to cadets in investigating animal cruelty and dogfighting. In addition, police officers should participate in focused training programs for investigating animal cruelty cases through the ASPCA and other animal protection organizations. The ASPCA provides online programs and CD-ROM training programs for police officers and would be willing to present a live training program to the Baltimore City Police Department (“BCPD”) at no cost. The costs of implementing the remaining recommendations would be negligible.

12. The BCPD should designate an existing officer to serve as a liaison for Animal Control, the BCPD, and the State’s Attorney’s Office. This officer would: (a) serve as a contact person for all animal cruelty cases transferred from Animal Control to the BCPD; (b) supervise additional investigation of these cruelty cases; (c) serve as a liaison to the State’s Attorney’s Office; and (4) report back to Animal Control regarding any final investigation and prosecution of animal cruelty cases. The costs of implementing this recommendation would be negligible.

13. The City should redirect revenue generated from the issuance of Animal Control citations toward the budget for Animal Control, rather than into the General Fund. This change in funding would provide an added incentive for AEOs and would result in even greater productivity. The costs of implementing this recommendation would be negligible.

14. AEOs should be required to attend the East Coast Animal Control Academy as a condition of employment. Sufficient funding should be provided for this critical training, which would protect officers as well as animals. The costs for attending the Academy are $1,600 per AEO.

15. The City should consider eliminating the two (2) driver positions at Animal Control and converting these positions to AEO positions. These officers would be responsible not only for retrieving dead animals, but investigating whether these animals were victims of abuse. The costs of implementing this recommendation would be $5,000 – $10,000 for each additional AEO.

16. BARCS should be properly staffed to include a full-time veterinarian, who would provide routine care for nearly 12,000 animals that pass through its doors each year. Over time, this veterinarian would receive training in forensic investigation and documentation of animal cruelty. The personnel costs including benefits for a full-time veterinarian would be $110,000 per year.

17. BARCS should be properly staffed to have fifteen (15) kennel employees per day to handle cleaning and feeding of the shelter population, which averages 400 animals on any given day. BARCS currently has only nine (9) kennel employees per day. The annual personnel costs, including benefits for each full-time kennel employee, is $30,000. Although the total cost for proper staffing of the kennel would be an additional $180,000 per year, additional positions could be added incrementally as the budget permits.

18. In lieu of relying on an existing police officer to serve as a liaison for Animal Control, the BCPD, and the State’s Attorney’s Office, the City should hire a “cruelty czar” who would be responsible for shepherding animal abuse cases from the time an abused animal is rescued until sentencing of the convicted abuser. This individual would serve as a liaison among several agencies and would work with Animal Control, the BCPD, and the State’s Attorney’s Office to ensure that animal abuse cases are investigated thoroughly and documented properly, so that the State’s Attorney Office has sufficient evidence to prosecute abusers. As this would be a new position, the personnel costs for this position are uncertain.

19. The City should designate three (3) police officers (1 detective sergeant and 2 detectives) to work with Animal Control to investigate cases of animal cruelty and dogfighting. Because of the current lack of personnel, the City should initially hire retired police officers for these assignments. This is the single most important recommendation for eradicating animal cruelty that the Task Force has proposed to date. The total personnel costs including benefits for each experienced officer would be approximately $75,000 per year, for a total of $225,000. Much of this expense could be offset by freeing existing AEOs from time-consuming cruelty investigations, which would allow them to issue more citations and generate additional revenue.

20. Animal Control should be properly staffed to include a minimum of four (4) Supervisors, twenty-five (25) AEOs, and two (2) Sanitarians. The personnel costs including benefits for these employees are as follows: AEO – $50,000; Supervisor – $54,000; Sanitarian – $62,000. The total additional personnel costs to properly staff Animal Control would be $466,000, provided that the two (2) current driver positions have been converted to AEO positions. These positions should be filled incrementally as the budget allows.

21. The City should renew its efforts to relocate BARCS and Animal Control to a larger facility to accommodate not only the current influx of animals, but the increased demands that will arise with greater enforcement of Maryland’s cruelty laws. Because of the existing high volume of animals at BARCS, the City has no means to assist the community by providing temporary shelter for companion animals in the event of a disaster. Moreover, the current location of these operations on Stockholm Street is problematic. Because the facility fronts the Patapsco River, it would be highly unlikely – if not impossible – to evacuate approximately 400 animals in the event of a hurricane or flood. If it is not feasible to relocate these operations, the City should either rebuild or greatly expand the current facility. The costs of building a brand new shelter with necessary space of 34,567 square feet could cost upward of nine to ten million dollars. The costs of renovating an existing building or expanding the current building would be significantly less. At a bare minimum, the City must identify a location where animals housed at BARCS would be transferred in the event of an evacuation and the City should investigate whether any federal funds from FEMA or other agencies would be available for disaster preparedness planning. In addition, the Department of Transportation should promulgate regulations that would allow citizens to bring companion animals onto public transportation during a declared disaster.

22. Maryland should amend its misdemeanor and felony cruelty laws to authorize a judge, in his/her discretion, to ban a convicted defendant from owning animals for as long as is deemed necessary to protect animals.

23. Maryland should amend its misdemeanor and felony cruelty laws to provide either a cost of care, restitution, or bonding provision. These provisions require convicted defendants to pay for the costs of impounding an animal due to neglect, abuse, or dogfighting, including their veterinary expenses.

24. Maryland should define or replace the term “cruelly kills” in its felony cruelty statute (MD. CODE CRIM. LAW §10-606 ANN.), so as to avoid any perceived ambiguity in the statute. Maryland should consider replacing this phrase with either “needlessly kills” or “unnecessarily kills.”

25. Maryland should continue its efforts to enact legislation so that animals may also be protected in domestic violence orders.

26. Maryland should enhance the penalty for being a knowing spectator at an animal fight from a misdemeanor to a felony.

27. Maryland should enhance the penalty for abandoning an animal from a fine not exceeding $100 to a fine not exceeding $1,000. Given the low penalty, there is no incentive for the enforcement of this crime, which is rampant.

28. Maryland should enhance the penalty for misdemeanor animal cruelty from a 90-day sentence and a $1,000 fine to a one-year sentence and a $2,500 fine, which will bring Maryland more in line with surrounding states. The majority of animal cruelty cases fall under this statute and the penalties for this level of abuse are too low.

29. Maryland should enhance the penalties for felony animal cruelty consistent with the District of Columbia, which may impose a maximum sentence of five (5) years imprisonment and a $25,000 fine.

30. Maryland should enact a dogfighting paraphernalia statute.

Comments

Comment from baltimoregal
Time January 27, 2010 at 11:02 am

I am absolutely impressed with the task force’s findings and hope they can carry out these needs ASAP.

Comment from Mikey’s Mom
Time January 27, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Does anyone know how one would go about getting involved with this group on a volunteer basis?

Thanks for posting this!!!!

Comment from Melissa Klein
Time January 27, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Excellent work, and vital that these Recommendations are implemented. Certainly, there is plenty of work to be done to require the creation of the Commission mentioned, in order to oversee and drive this process. Cruelty to animals is one of the key indicators that there is a pyschopath in the making, who will turn to “human prey.” So, even those individuals that don’t care about animals/animal issues should support this as well. Agencies that combat child abuse and family violence would see their detection and intervention abilities improve by understanding this connection.–Setting up mutual detection and reporting systems in cooperation with their anti- animal cruelty partners.

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