Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here:

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Dangerous Animals

Prompted by some high-profile dog bite incidents and an impression that a certain sort of people are increasingly "weaponizing" dogs and using them as tools for intimidation, mostly on the Northside, City staff and Council Members Samuels, Hofstede and Johnson have proposed a new ordinance that would severely crack down on dog owners in Minneapolis.

Among their proposed changes:

1) Rather than simply fining owners who are found to have unlicensed pets (both dogs and cats), Animal Care and Control (ACC) staff would be empowered to impound unlicensed pets.

2) Pets (both dogs and cats) could be declared "potentially dangerous" for doing any of the following: causing a person to take a "defensive action," offering a "physical threat" or having a "known propensity or tendency" to be dangerous. If a cat hisses at someone, it could be a potentially dangerous animal. If a campaign volunteer runs out of a fenced yard when a dog runs around the house, it could be a potentially dangerous animal. If there are widespread rumors that a dog is dangerous that are believed by ACC staff, it could be a potentially dangerous animal.

3) If an owner posesses items that could be used to train a dog to fight (not defined anywhere in the ordinance, therefore up to ACC staff's interpretation) the dog is immediately declared dangerous, not just potentially dangerous.

4) In order to own animals declared dangerous, someone would have to maintain a $300,000 insurance policy, creating a de facto "means test" for dangerous animal ownership.

5) A convicted felon would be disallowed from having certain kinds of dogs (weighing more than 20 pounds, for instance).

6) The measures for which dogs felons would be able to own would include subjective and untestable items such as "tolerance for pain, "tendency to refuse to terminate an attack," "propensity to bite," "potential for unpredictable behavior" and "aggressiveness." Staff would be empowered to rule on these matters (which, coincidentally, sound quite a bit like a 'breed ban.' On what information other than breed could staff possibly make these judgment calls?)

Taken together, these proposals would give staff latitude and flexibility to declare dangerous or potentially dangerous basically any animal about which there is a complaint. I fear that this will inevitably lead to a radical increase in the number of animals "destroyed" (a polite euphemism for "killed").

Again, my colleagues are both explicitly and implicitly empowering and asking staff to seletively enforce vaguely written and non-specific ordinances. I believe that staff clearly understand that the full force of these rules is not to be used in Seward or around lake Calhoun, where there is not political will for these sorts of draconian measures. For example, my office has worked on several instances of animals improperly declared potentially dangerous (even under the current 'weak' rules!), succeeding in getting these declarations overturned. We have never yet advocated on constituents' behalf that a certain animal be declared dangerous. Why would ACC staff waste their time taking enforcement actions that will be appealed and likely overturned?

At yesterday's Public Safety and Regulatory Services committee, I moved to change or delete all six of the above. I failed to change the committee's mind on point one, but succeeded in softening part five, making it apply only to violent felons and making the prohibition last for only ten years after they complete their sentence. Bizarrely, the original proposal created a stricter prohibition on dog ownership than on handguns. My amendment used the same restrictions for both.

I also proposed a change to the toothless prohibition against ownership of dog "weaponizing" paraphernelia, to make it a misdemeanor.

After a long and confused discussion, the committee put this matter off until January. I will continue to argue that it is an abdication of our responsibility as leaders to write such vague laws that we effectively cede authority for deciding how to define "dangerousness" to staff. I agree with my colleagues that we must do more to protect people from dangerous animals, but I believe that we must narrowly tailor our laws to address behavior that is actually, objectively, and verifiably harmful.

Note that this is exactly the same philosophical stance that led me to oppose the ordinances seeking to criminalize walking in alleys and further criminalize panhandling, and that is inspiring my work to repeal the "lurking" ordinance.


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