Dead Dogs and Dead Daughters: Is The Presumption of Innocence Gone?

“You guys killed my dog!” Utah resident Sean Kendall told several police officers. “I’ve had this dog for three years. He was my best friend—and he was shot because an officer couldn’t back the [expletive] up out of my house!”

Geist, Kendall’s Weimaraner, was inside Kendall’s fenced backyard when Officer Brett Olsen shot and killed him on June 18 while searching for a missing three-year-old boy, after opening Kendall’s fence and entering the backyard without permission or a warrant.

Kendall’s video went viral, media attention poured in, and concerned citizens took to the streets in protest of this use of perceived excessive force. The “Justice for Geist” Facebook page for supporters now stands at nearly 80,000 likes. Despite the officer being cleared of the shooting for “acting within policy,” many Utahns remain upset that Geist was killed when, they believe, the officer could have acted in a different manner, thus removing the need to attack the dog.

As the rallies and letters to the editor and angry interviews percolated in the weeks following this shooting, I couldn’t help wondering how Melissa Kennedy felt watching the outcry.

Kennedy is the mother of Danielle Willard, who was shot and killed on November 2, 2012, by Officer Shaun Cowley in West Valley City while in the parking lot of an apartment complex. Cowley and his partner, both in street clothes, approached Danielle’s vehicle. A few days prior, Danielle had reported a break-in of her apartment to police, making it possible that she suspected these plain-clothes men were not in fact police officers. After one of the officers obtained a tool to shatter the vehicle’s window, Danielle put the car into gear and attempted to flee. Both officers opened fire on the vehicle, later claiming that the assault was defensive. Danielle was struck in the head with a bullet and killed.

Danielle’s story likewise brought media attention, and some rallies—though attended by dozens, not hundreds. The “Justice for Danielle Willard” Facebook page has less than 5,000 likes.

If I was Melissa Kennedy, I would be wondering why the public reaction to the shooting and killing of a dog evoked more passion and anger and activism than the shooting and killing of Danielle. I would wonder why more sympathy existed for a dog than for a human being.

I suggest that the answer lies in the question itself. It seems that most people tend to believe that if a person suffered at the hands of police, they “deserved it”—they did something that justified the officer’s use of force in response. As Danielle was accused of using or possibly dealing drugs, many people shrugged off her demise as a consequence of her own bad decisions. While news reports of corrupt police officers and excessive uses of force sprinkle throughout (and occasionally saturate) the media, public support remains strongly in favor of law enforcement officers; police, and not the alleged perpetrator, are given the benefit of the doubt.

The same they-got-what-was-coming-to-them attitude seems to not be applied to young children or domestic animals, who most people presume to be innocent actors undeserving of any use of force. Thus, the shooting and killing of an apparently lovable dog evoked emotions of betrayal and mourning, with enough ire being felt by the police department that its chief held a press conference to support his employee and tell the public to give officers the respect he feels they deserve.

And Chief Burbank himself noted the difference in reaction: “After 23 years in law enforcement I haven’t seen this type of public outcry when certain human beings have lost their lives.”

A presumption of innocence is imperative—especially for adults who aren’t implicitly perceived to be innocent, like children and domestic animals. The government has the burden of proving a violation of its many mandates, overcoming that presumption to clearly show that a crime was committed. But that presumption—especially in popular opinion, if not also in political institutions—appears to be dead.

We can only hope (with apologies to Miracle Max) that it’s only mostly dead.

  • SusanJBarretta

    I think the media coverage has a great deal to do with it.  Dillon Taylor’s shooting got practically no press.  I found out about his shooting on Youtube.  When I finally did find media coverage, the comments attached to the page were sickening.  People assume that the victim somehow deserved it.  They don’t think it through.  They don’t consider how now a total stranger who doesn’t like the way you look can call up the police with some fanciful story about you and the cop will show up and execute you, without the victim having ever faced his accuser, without a trial.

  • TimHeise

    Awesome article. well said.

  • Ignorance_is_bliss

    Do you think callers
    should be held accountable for their actions? I mean, come on, the police are
    responding because someone called them (in between posts on facebook and
    twitter). That person is responsible for sending questionably trained
    gun-toting police into an otherwise normal every day goings-on at the
    neighborhood 7-Eleven!  Someone who is armed and dangerous and “acting under
    color of law” has a preconceived notion that a crime has been committed by a gangsta
    looking white male, wearing a charcoal gray hoodie and waiving around what
    appears to be a firearm. If not for that
    person’s phone call a human being would still be alive!

  • SusanJBarretta

    Ignorance_is_bliss SusanJBarretta Honestly, I don’t know what to think about the callers.  They are partly responsible. I also blame the Department of Homeland Security and its “If you see something say something” snitch mentality. Now anybody who has swallowed that propaganda pats himself smugly on the back when he calls up the police without first calmly and rationally assessing what he perceives as a threat. He doesn’t have to, he has done his “patriotic” duty and becomes an instant hero.  It’s disgusting.

  • occupyhln

    markgeragos Hey Mark! Got rid of Vinnie Politan, Jane Velez-Mitchell, & Karas, Nancy & Dr. Drew to go. (new org)

  • Andr3w_95

    markgeragos is Kesha’s 2016 trial date set in stone? Please, is there anyway it can be done sooner?

  • > Despite the officer being cleared of the shooting for “,” 

    I understand that shooting a dog who represents a threat to the officer is within policy. However, entering a fenced yard that’s private property without permission or a warrant is CLEARLY not acting within policy. Hence I do not see how the officer could have been cleared completely– at minimum he was trespassing. Not the same as shooting an animal (which was self defense) but a crime none the less.

    I would need more information to draw an opinion on the Willard situation you describe. It indicates that she “attempted to flee” in the vehicle– that implies that she was driving AWAY from the officers. If that’s the case, the shooting is VERY unlikely to be justified. If, however, she was driving TOWARDS them it MAY have been a reasonable (though unfortunate and tragic) action on the part of the officers. I’d like to see more information on this– if she was driving AWAY then the lack of outrage is concerning.

  • JacobLaw1

    Comply or Die is NOT the Law;
    Maybe I overlooked it but it should be noted the Danielle Willard’s shooting was ruled unjustified by the County Attorney, a rare event to say the least.
    None compliance to a lawful police order is a Class A Misdemeanor, which apparently is now punishable by immediate execution.
    Many if not all of these shootings never address that these officers have no compelling reason to cause people to comply to their unlawful demands, yet it is assumed be are to bow to their orders..