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.