Bite the Bullet

Minneapolis police say "common sense" led them to shoot Scott Derrick's beloved mutt. So what if he was on a leash?

"C'mere, Thor--c'mere, buddy," Scott Derrick says gently as he beckons his 12-year-old dog out of the shade provided by his rusty 1979 Ford pickup. A German shepherd-Lab mix with soft, sleep-caked eyes and a woofy bark, Thor struggles to his feet and ambles over. His gait is unsteady, as if his withered hindquarters were bound by an invisible rope half a length too short.

A swarm of flies buzz relentlessly about the dog's back, where a saucer-sized swath of fur has been shaved away, revealing a nasty, blackened wound. The scab marks the spot where a nine-millimeter bullet, fired by a Minneapolis police officer, entered Thor's body 13 days ago. It did not strike any vital organs and, in fact, remains lodged in the chest cavity. Putting such an old dog under the surgeon's knife would be too risky, Derrick explains, adding that Thor--already hampered by age and arthritis--is starting to slow down in the wake of his encounter with the law. "He's acting weird," Derrick sighs. "I don't know how long he's going to make it."

Plopping down in the grass by Derrick's side, though, Thor appears more puzzled than anguished. Derrick is puzzled, too--and angry. And scared. "I'm having terrible nightmares of being beaten and chased and shot at by cops," he says, sucking down a GPC cigarette between swigs of his morning coffee. "I'm paranoid. Every time I see a cop, my blood boils."

Tough dog: Thor and the slug in his chest have become legend around the "Minnehaha Free State"
Mike Mosedale
Tough dog: Thor and the slug in his chest have become legend around the "Minnehaha Free State"

For about a year, Derrick, a 42-year-old handyman and house painter, has been living with Thor out of an oversized plywood camper mounted on the bed of Derrick's Ford. For most of that time, the truck has been parked around south Minneapolis's Minnehaha Park, near the spot where a ragtag coalition of environmentalists, Native American activists, anarchists, new agers and assorted wanderers have set up a camp protesting the planned reroute of Highway 55.

Derrick, like others in the movement, says the cause has come to dominate his daily existence. "It's changed my life," he explains. "Opened up my spirituality and consciousness. I don't even like living in a house anymore. This," he adds, as he peers out across the meadow, "is my church." Since arriving at the camp--known variously as the "Minnehaha Free State" and "Four Oaks" (the latter a reference to a majestic stand of trees that members of the anti-highway movement consider holy)--Derrick has found a home of sorts, a place, as he puts it, of "good, positive energy." To Free State dwellers, Thor has become something of a mascot--"just a nice, friendly dog," says Larry Lemieux, a neighborhood activist and frequent visitor.

But that wasn't how three Minneapolis police officers saw it when they encountered Thor on July 8. That afternoon Derrick, feeling a little queasy, had crawled into the camper's cramped sleeping loft for a nap. He'd tied Thor up to the trailer hitch with a five-foot nylon strap--bright yellow, he says, so that people would know the dog was leashed. "I was in a deep sleep," Derrick recalls, running his hand through a bushy, graying beard. "All of a sudden I heard some screaming and yelling: 'Is there anybody in there? Come out! This is the police.' I'm yelling back that I'm coming out, I just gotta grab my pants. And then I heard two shots. I've seen a lot of movies, so I just hit the floor."

Next, Derrick heard Thor whimpering. He emerged from the truck in his underwear to find the dog lying motionless on the ground and three officers standing nearby. "They said, 'What are you doing here?' and I said, 'I'm a member of the camp. Why'd you shoot my dog, you fucking assholes? Why'd you shoot my dog?'" Derrick's voice rises at this point in the narrative. "I thought Thor was dead. And this one cop kept pointing at his leg and said, 'He bit me. Your dog bit me.' I didn't see any wound or anything. And I called him a liar."

According to Minneapolis Police Department spokeswoman Penny Parrish, Gary Nelson, the officer who shot the dog, does not wish to discuss the incident with the media. The way he told her the story, Parrish says, Nelson noticed the camper while investigating a rash of crimes in the surrounding neighborhood. "At this time of the year, when you see a truck like that, you've got to check it out. With the heat, somebody could have expired inside the thing. It's just commonsense police work."

The officers didn't see the sleeping dog by the side of the truck, Parrish continues, until the animal "came out of nowhere" and sunk its teeth "up to the gums" into Officer Nelson's thigh.

In short order, the cops summoned animal control to the scene. Thor was taken to an emergency veterinary service, and then to the pound for the ten-day quarantine required for dogs that bite humans. (Officer Nelson was treated at Hennepin County Medical Center, according to Parrish; he had puncture wounds, but did not require stitches.) Camp dwellers took up a collection to cover the $154 bill for Thor's quarantine and a rabies booster shot. Derrick has yet to receive a bill for the vet services--or, he says, a satisfactory explanation for why his dog was shot.

MPD policy, Parrish says, allows officers to shoot dogs "whenever they are in a situation where a dog is a danger to themselves or anyone else in the area." The department does not keep a tally of dog shootings, nor does Animal Control; in the past year, the city paid out a little over $40,000 in connection with two incidents, in 1990 and 1995, in which officers killed pet dogs.

Colleen Meyer, a volunteer with the Animal Rights Coalition, says her organization receives five to ten calls a year complaining about Minneapolis police shooting dogs. "This sort of thing goes on all the time," Meyer contends. "And the only way this is going to stop is if people sue the city." Derrick says he's been looking for an attorney, but without much luck. "I talked to a couple of lawyers and they say it's pretty hard to sue the cops," he shrugs.

Around the Free State, though, the tale of "Thorsday" has become legend--in part because of the old dog's remarkable survival ("I think that all the positive spirits here jumped into Thor and brought him back to life," Derrick says), and in part because of the camp's lingering bitterness toward law enforcement. After all, Derrick and his allies invariably note, a December raid on their earlier encampment was the largest such effort in state history. "Everybody thinks [the shooting] was a retaliatory action, to get even with us because of the charges being dismissed," Derrick says, referring to the authorities' failure to secure convictions against most of those arrested.

Parrish is quick to dismiss that theory. "It's really a stretch on their part to go there," she says. "The officers were just checking out the vehicle. This had nothing to do with Highway 55."

Editor's Note: As this story went to press, protesters were attempting to block state Department of Transportation crews working in the Highway 55 corridor. At least 29 people were arrested Monday and Tuesday, and one protester was hospitalized.

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