Animal control officer suspended after dog shooting

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published March 13, 2014

ST. CLAIR SHORES — Discipline for the officers involved in the shooting of a dog on Princeton Street in November has been carried out, according to City Manager Phillip Ludos, who reported on the matter March 3 in City Council chambers.

Ludos said the city’s Animal Control Officer, Tom Massey, has been suspended for a month without pay for his actions that day.

He said the entire department will also undergo training with regard to the handling of animals in the field, and the structure of the department will be changed to place the animal control officer (ACO) under the purview of a specific bureau.

“We should never have it happen again,” Ludos said.

Police were called to the area of Yale and Princeton streets Nov. 22 for reports of a dog running loose in the area. The dog, Lexie, was ultimately shot by St. Clair Shores Police after allegedly charging at the officers.

Two other officers were disciplined with regard to the incident, Ludos reported March 3.

“In one case, an officer was counseled on some of the comments he had made verbally,” he said. A second officer had a letter of discipline entered into his file concerning his control of the scene.

Councilman Anthony Tiseo said he was disappointed, when watching the police dash cam video, to see that the ACO did not leave the scene quickly; the dog had been put in the ACO vehicle after being shot but was still alive at the time. The ACO stayed on the scene, reportedly, for at least 45 minutes after the dog was shot.

“The most disheartening part, for me, is to watch that animal control car sit there as long as it did,” Councilman Anthony Tiseo said. 

“To see, after the dog was placed in the vehicle, (to) see the ACO worry about looking for shells, talking to neighbors, it was very disheartening,” Councilman John Caron agreed.

Caron said the city had to make sure the employees received “due process,” as well, but hoped such a situation wouldn’t recur.

“Going forward, hopefully when the ACO comes back off his suspension, goes for his training with the Macomb County Animal Control officers … hopefully (there will be) a listing of what that training entails.”

And he said that the officer disciplined with regard to the language he used on the scene — stating repeatedly that he did not like dogs and so wouldn’t go near the animal — would hopefully be trained or removed from the possibility of being in that situation again “to where that encounter couldn’t occur.”

Watching the video, he said, elaborated just how complex the situation was.

“The final interaction with the homeowner with the police officers … was making ground for the homeowner to let the dog in,” Caron said. “Something happened that caused the dog to charge the officers. You actually hear the surprise in the officers’ voices … right before the weapons are discharged.

“Something had triggered the dog. The officers, unfortunately, had to react.”

The proposed training, Councilman Peter Rubino said, will lessen the chances such an incident would happen again.

“I consider this individual case done and look forward to the future of more training and education,” he said. 

Interim Police Chief Todd Woodcox said the entire department will complete at least one course on handling wild/vicious animals, including family pets that have gotten loose and learning how to properly approach, handle and catch them, “so that, hopefully, we can safely capture them without having another tragedy.”

He said he will be working with the city manager’s office to coordinate the training because it will be an expensive undertaking to train the entire department, and he wants to make sure funding is in place first.

“Anytime there’s a major incident, we always want to examine it to be done better in the future,” he said. “Changing the way we do business, that’s always an ongoing process. It’s definitely a reminder of what we need to do better.”

In addition, Mayor Kip Walby said that the ACO will now be in uniform, and will be assigned to report to a specific bureau in the department.

“You need to have a chain of command,” Ludos said.

City Councilman Chris Vitale said that City Council discussed the option of firing the ACO but was counseled against that by the city’s labor attorney, Craig Lange, because “there has to be consistency,” Ludos said.

“As he reviewed things … it was his opinion that to … take that route would not have been the best alternative to us,” Ludos said. “The direction I finally took was the most severe discipline that’s been meted out in the St. Clair Shores Police Department in 20 years.”

Now, he said, a baseline threshold has been established for similar actions going forward, which means the city would have more options, were such an incident to occur again.

“I examined a lot of discipline cases that had been handled over the past 10-15 years there,” Ludos said. “As I look at it … there pretty much was no discipline.”

He said he expects that to change with a new chief at the helm of the police department.

City Attorney Robert Ihrie said that all paperwork regarding the investigation of the incident was forwarded to the Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office for review, but the prosecuting attorney denied prosecution of the matter.

“Anytime there’s a situation like this that many people are examining, we’re not going to make everyone happy, but under the circumstances … this was the most appropriate discipline to mete out and overall resolution to the issues that we faced,” Woodcox said.