March 2017 | Police Officers Trained to Handle Animal Cruelty Cases
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Police Officers Trained to Handle Animal Cruelty Cases

Amy Worden - March 2017

A majority of Lancaster County, PA police are now better armed to take on animal cruelty.

Last month, Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman followed through on his promise to provide local law enforcement with guidance and resources to effectively investigate and prosecute animal cruelty.

In the wake of the fatal beating of a cart horse who had broken down on a rural road and a botched case against a horse rescue, Stedman vowed to step up enforcement and crack down on abusers.

He started by tasking local police with the responsibility of enforcing cruelty laws due to a shortage of humane law enforcement officers and launching an animal abuse tip line in his office.

In February, with the support of the Humane Society of the United States, he held the first countywide humane law enforcement training session for local police in Pennsylvania.

In all, 150 officers belonging to the nearly 30 police departments in the county showed up for the for-credit, day-long classes offered to small groups of officers over four days.

Lancaster County has a large animal population with its high volume of commercial dog breeding kennels and many Amish and Mennonite dairy and chicken farms that use horse power for transportation and field labor.

Stedman said the volume of calls, coupled with the shortage of humane officers, has placed an extra burden on local police who until now were little prepared for the task.

“We want to give them the tools they need to prosecute these crimes, but also how to investigate a case and what to look for when they are brought in,” said Stedman.

Central to the training class – and winning support of police - said Stedman and humane law enforcement professionals, is demonstrating a link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to people.

“Someone who beats up a dog shows a willingness to hurt any creature,” said Stedman.

High Number of Cases

“It’s no secret that Lancaster has a high percentage of cases and that there’s a huge need for humane law enforcement,” said Chris Brosan, a former Loudoun County (Va.) police officer and humane officer, who now manages strategic campaigns and special projects for HSUS.

Brosan, one of the animal welfare experts who conducted the training, also leads similar law enforcement trainings around the country and in Puerto Rico. He said getting buy-in from Lancaster police wasn’t difficult.

“You have to show them you don’t have to love animals, but you have to respect the animal’s role in societal safety,” he said. “It’s not an animal welfare problem, it’s a community problem.”

Not only is there a growing awareness of the importance of animals in people’s lives as pets and companions, Brosan said, but the addition of animal abuse cases in the FBI’s annual crime statistics report shows that law enforcement at the highest levels now recognizes the human  impact of crimes against animals.

 

The Lancaster County course covered Pennsylvania animal law, provided guidance on how to investigate animal crimes and gave officers resources in the event they have to remove an animal. It also advised them of the potential dangers inherent in removing an animal from a home.

“Going out to take a person’s animal is not unlike a domestic violence case,” said Brosan.

Nicole Wilson, director of Humane Law Enforcement at the Pennsylvania SPCA, led the session on the Pennsylvania cruelty statute. She said while the PSPCA employs an officer who handles cases in Lancaster, they are limited because they are also responsible for other counties.

“The public wants to see animal cases addressed in a timely manner; having local police to turn to is really essential,” she said.

She said she was impressed by the officers’ receptiveness to the training. “They were engaged and saw value in it,” she said.

Summary Offences

Brosan said some officers expressed frustration with the limits of the law and the fact that most crimes against animals are only summary offenses -the same level as a parking ticket.

Inequity in the law presents obstacles for law enforcement because of the stipulation in the law that exempts farm animals engaged in “normal agricultural operations” such as pulling plows or wagons. 

There was some initial confusion about whether the beating of the horse pulling a watermelon cart in Ephrata last summer may have fallen under that provision, although at Stedman’s urging charges were filed and the owner plead guilty.

Stedman said his campaign to improve the lives of animals in Lancaster will be complete when the General Assembly approves legislation to overhaul the animal cruelty code. Among the many pieces of animal legislation under consideration by the legislature this session is “Cordelia’s Law,” sponsored by Sen. John Eichelberger, which would elevate penalties for equine abuse to the same level those imposed for cruelty to dogs and cats.

“We definitely need increased penalties for certain crimes, especially with repeat offenders,” said Stedman. “But the law also needs to be clarified to clear up confusion that weakens cruelty cases.”

Kristen Tullo, Pennsylvania state director for HSUS, said she hopes with the success of the Lancaster County event that her organization can partner with other counties to hold similar training sessions for their police officers.

The Lancaster County District Attorney’s office has a new email account to report cruelty cases.  Animalabuse@co.lancaster.pa.us

The Large Animal Protection Society investigates crimes against horses and other livestock. They can be reached at (610) 869-9880

The Pennsylvania SPCA operates a Cruelty Hotline at: 1-866-601-SPCA. The tip line operates 24/7 and accepts calls from Philadelphia and the 23 counties where the PSPCA operates including Lancaster. For more information visit www.pspca.org