The attorney handling the Shughart family’s legal action against Lebanon city police for the death of their dog said the video shot by a witness makes it clear that Gunner was no threat to the three officers who had him pinned to the ground.
“There’s no doubt,” attorney Kristina Bergsten told LebTown. “This was a 1-year-old puppy, Anyone who works with animals will tell you a 1-year-old puppy might bite or growl if it’s scared … but it didn’t sound like the animal was being threatening in any way.
“I don’t have any doubt that the dog was just being a dog. Maybe he was barking or growling because he was scared,” she added. “There’s no way this dog was doing anything that warranted being shot.”
The dog, Gunner, was shot and killed in a Lebanon city yard on July 6. The dog’s owner, Jacklyn Shughart, told LebTown that Gunner and her other dog, a German shepherd mix named Rider, had escaped from her yard after someone opened the gate to her property. Her family recovered Rider quickly but they were unable to locate Gunner, a German shepherd with some Labrador retriever and husky blood, who they had adopted in 2021 from the Davis Dog Farm in Grantville.
When Gunner wandered into another yard, the resident called police to capture the stray dog and, she hoped, reunite him with his family. Instead, three police officers cornered, tasered, and captured the dog with a catch pole. Gunner was on the ground and wagging his tail, a video of the incident appears to show, when one of the officers drew his sidearm and fatally shot the dog in the head.
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Two days later, Police Chief Todd H. Breiner issued a statement saying the dog was killed “as a last resort … to protect officers and the public from endangerment.”
On July 25, about 60 people showed up at a meeting of Lebanon City Council to voice their displeasure with the way police handled the incident. City Mayor Sherry Capello said city officials “feel our officers handled it properly, given the circumstances,” adding: “A tail that is wagging is not necessarily a sign of a friendly dog.”
Shughart told LebTown later her family was at the meeting and “we were not happy with the mayor’s responses.”
Bergsten, too, thinks the city response so far has been weak.
“Every police officer in a situation like this says, ‘The dog was being aggressive. I was in fear for my safety,'” she said. “Were you, though? … This dog was not being aggressive.”
‘Willful and wanton misconduct’
Although no legal suit has been filed against the city so far, Bergsten said there are “a couple of different legal actions” she and the Shugharts may consider.
Gunner’s death could be described as “willful and wanton misconduct” by police, she said. Also, she said, action could be pursued under a civil rights law that prohibits the “unlawful taking of property.”
“Unfortunately, animals are considered property in this country,” Bergsten said. “But, as such, that’s a violation of (the Shughart family’s) civil rights.”
Bergsten is founder of the Animal Law Firm, which specializes in cases dealing with animal welfare and animal rights. The firm was founded in Colorado, but now also serves clients in Pennsylvania and New Jersey out of an office in Media, Pa.
She said the Shugharts contacted her about taking their case. When she learned the details of the case – and watched the video – Bergsten said she was “immediately very sad for the family. I was shocked, but not surprised.”
Her initial impression of the video, she said, was, “This was a completely unnecessary death. … The dog’s tale was wagging the whole time. Unfortunately, police shooting dogs for no reason is pretty common.”
They also could pursue monetary damages from the city, Bergsten said. “But right now the Shugharts are primarily concerned to make sure this never happens again to anyone else.”
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Although the names of the officers involved in Gunner’s death have not been officially released, Bergsten said her firm’s investigation “has shown that this isn’t the first time one of the officers has been involved” in a shooting of this type.
“We want the police to discipline the officers involved,” she said. “They should retrain their officers, and come up with policies and procedures for this type of situation.”
However, Bergsten added, “my dad always said, if you want to get someone’s attention, hit them where it hurts: their wallet. We will be requesting monetary damages.”
‘We hold dogs to impossible standards’
Bergsten admits she is an animal lover, and she questions the inability of police to handle Gunner safely.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years. In all that time, I’ve only ever met one dog that was completely beyond help,” she said. “I’ve never met a dangerous dog, I’ve never met an aggressive dog. I’ve met good dogs in bad situations.”
It’s similar to profiling, Bergsten said – dogs are assumed to be at fault simply because they are dogs.
“We want dogs to behave like people, but that’s not possible. We hold dogs to impossible standards,” she added. “I could talk about this all day. I don’t care for the laws as they are written.”
She noted that her firm has requested the police officers’ body cam footage of the incident but they haven’t yet gotten a response.
“We are going to give them an opportunity to respond and resolve this without resorting to litigation,” Bergsten said. “If we can’t come to a reasonable resolution, we will be discussing litigation.”
“Confused and scared, Gunner resisted the catch pole a little, but was not lunging, biting, or growling at the officers. In fact, his tail was seen wagging during the whole encounter,” the message said. “Rather than waiting for the humane society, the officers held Gunner down with the catch pole and shot him, killing him instantly.
“The Animal Law Firm is representing Gunner’s parents in this case, and we are asking anyone with information related to Gunner’s death or the involved police officers to contact our office. We, at ALF, hope to bring justice to Gunner and his family, as well as to continue the fight for animal rights.”
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