Dog Gone Shame

Julie and Allen Evans (shown with their surviving dogs, Cola and Snoopy) have a bone to pick with Minneapolis Police over the shooting of their pit bull Smurf
Michael Dvorak

On the morning of April 27, Julie Evans ducked out to run two quick errands. When she returned a short while later, she found a note on her door asking her to come and pick up her dog at Minneapolis Animal Care and Control. She assumed that the dog, 7-year-old Smurf, had simply got loose and been captured by the dogcatcher. Smurf was both licensed and had been implanted with an identifying microchip, so Evans quickly rounded up the pet's paperwork and drove downtown.

When Evans got to the pound, however, she was in for a shock. Smurf was dead, zipped up in a bag in a back room for her to claim. More shocking, Evans soon learned that her dog had not been hit by an errant car or pickup truck, but shot in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun by a Minneapolis Police Department officer.

The Evanses believe that Smurf would still be alive if he had not been a pit bull. He was shot, they reason, in part because at the time Minneapolis police were primed to fear pit bulls. Never mind, Allen Evans insists, that "Smurf didn't have a mean bone in his body."

The day before Smurf was killed, a 7-year-old girl named Sweetflower Vang was brutally attacked by two dogs, a rottweiler cross and a pit bull, while waiting for a school bus on Minneapolis's north side. The girl required extensive plastic surgery and the dogs were subsequently destroyed.

Smurf had apparently jumped out a window at the Evans home in the 3400 block of Morgan Avenue North in Minneapolis's Folwell neighborhood and was wandering area streets, prompting someone to call the police. According to the tale Julie Evans pieced together, when Smurf first got out, a neighbor recognized the dog and returned him to his yard, which is encircled by a four-foot chain link fence. But shortly afterward, two or three police squads arrived on the scene, followed quickly by Minneapolis Animal Control officers. According to an incident report filed by Jake Adam of Animal Control, Smurf reportedly backed away from the officers when they approached him, but charged towards them when they turned their backs.

Adam later reported that when he entered the Evans yard, Smurf escaped through a hole in the fence. The dog then ran through yards and down alleys while police and Animal Control officers gave chase. After a half-hour had passed, the officers concluded that the dog was becoming aggressive and posed a danger to children and others in the area. MPD Sergeant Michael Chiappetta gave the authorization to shoot the dog, and Officer Richard Opitz fired the single shot that killed Smurf, according to the report. (The various reports filed about the incident, however, list three different locations for where this happened: 36th and Newton avenues north, 37th and Newton avenues north, and 39th and Oliver avenues north.)

The Evanses can't imagine Smurf menacing anyone. Neighbors, too, recall Smurf as an "excellent" dog. "He was good with cats, dogs, kids," says Cindy Fossum, who lives across the street from the Evans home. Rather, the family believes that the problem is that Smurf was a pit bull. "Everyone just thinks pit bulls are so mean and they're really not," says Julie Evans.

Just last week, the Evanses note, a Ramsey County Sheriff's deputy shot and killed a 7-year-old Labrador retriever named Gwennie while attempting to serve an arrest warrant at the wrong house. While that story played all over local television news, they say that reporters were unsympathetic to their loss upon learning that the slain pet was a pit bull.

Animal Control manager Bob Marotto says that his staffers impound thousands of dogs a year. "Our response to situations like this is the same regardless of the breed," he says, explaining that in Smurf's case, "there was concern about the behavior of the dog." Marotto estimates that "several" dogs are killed under such circumstances every year. "There are unfortunately situations in which sworn officers need to make decisions about the use of lethal force and their concerns about safety in the neighborhoods," he says.

If Smurf was behaving aggressively, Julie Evans asks, why didn't anyone think to shoot him with a tranquilizer dart? Marotto replies that Animal Control doesn't use tranquilizers or other chemicals because an improper dose can harm an animal.

Marotto adds that Animal Control records show that Smurf had been classified as a "potentially dangerous dog" following an incident in October 2000, when he reportedly bit a neighborhood child. Last year, Animal Control declared some 379 pets to be problems. The category Smurf fell into, "potentially dangerous," is the least serious; that designation simply means a record is made of someone's unpleasant encounter with the animal. Under Animal Control's more serious designations, dogs may be muzzled, confined, registered, or in rare cases even destroyed.

The Evanses insist that Smurf didn't bite the child, however, and say they thought they had cleared everything up with their neighbors and with Animal Control. Since they weren't asked to muzzle or otherwise restrain the dog, Allen Evans says he assumed the issue of the "potentially dangerous" designation had been resolved.

In any case, the officers who responded to the call about Smurf didn't know about his status. According to their reports, they simply saw an agitated pit bull on the loose. The MPD's policy regarding the use of deadly force says that cops can use force "to protect the peace officer or others from apparent death or great bodily harm."

None of this appeases the Evans family. They say they've received plenty of explanations, but they haven't heard an apology from anyone involved. In May, Allen and Julie Evans fired off a letter to a host of politicians and to the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office demanding $100,000 to compensate for the "pain and suffering" associated with Smurf's death. Assistant City Attorney Tim Skarda wrote back to the couple, saying that he is evaluating the claim.

Attorneys who have had similar cases in the past suggest that the Evanses' chances of seeing that kind of settlement are slim. Under state law, aggrieved dog owners are only entitled to the "fair market value" of their pet. "As a practical matter, there is almost no avenue of remedy or relief," says Marshall Tanick, a Minneapolis attorney who has represented both dog organizations and dog owners. "You can only recover the monetary value of the dog. You can't get emotional damages or punitive damages."

Attorneys did find a way around that legal roadblock in a 1998 lawsuit filed by a family whose pit bull, Gippy, was killed by 15 shots fired by Minneapolis police officers. A jury agreed that the family had been deprived of its property and Gippy's former owners were awarded $5,000, as well as more than $50,000 in attorney's fees.

The Evanses have two more dogs to look out for, Cola and Snoopy. Both are part pit bull. More than money, the couple would like to see some changes in city policy, so that they and other families don't lose more pets under similar circumstances. Julie Evans said she would like to see both Minneapolis police and Animal Control officials trained to use tranquilizer guns on dogs.

In the meantime, they are trying to keep Smurf's memory alive with a small tableau in the front yard of their Minneapolis home. One of the dog's worn green collars dangles in the breeze from a sawed-off branch. A cardboard sign lashed to a pine tree strung with Christmas lights features photos of Smurf pasted above captions reading "Family Pet," "Devoted," and "Lovable." One shows the dog with the Evans children in Halloween costumes; another depicts him cuddled up on the couch.

"I just don't want it to happen to someone else," she says. "I want something to change."

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