One afternoon in August 2012, Kathryn Thomas was surprised to see cars from the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office and Animal Control outside her yellow ranch house in Loxahatchee. They were parked near a wall of palm trees and a metal gate with a "Beware of Dog" sign. The petite 52-year-old, who has shoulder-length blond hair and favors delicate gold jewelry and flare jeans, had just returned from signing up her 16-year-old daughter for car insurance in Wellington.
She wasn't used to seeing police on her street, which is located in a quiet neighborhood near a wildlife preserve where road signs read, "SLOW: Horses," and you can hear roosters crowing from a nearby yard.
An officer requested her ID after she exited the car. She handed it over. Then he told her: "Mrs. Thomas, we had to shoot your dogs." Suddenly, she realized what was inside the three black plastic body bags lying to the side of the driveway — Bully, Boss, and Kahlua, three sweet mutts that had never been unkind to anyone.
"I was in complete and utter shock," she says, tears welling in her eyes. "It just doesn't seem like something that should happen in the United States."
In reality, it happens all the time. Every year, thousands of dogs are shot by police officers. And most departments — in South Florida and across the nation — have either vague policies or none at all. And they offer little training to prevent unnecessary animal deaths.
In 2014, Laurel Matthews, a supervisory program specialist with the Department of Justice, told Police Magazine that cops in the United States kill an estimated 25 to 30 dogs a day. She called it an "epidemic."
Details of these killings aren't easily available. How threatened are the cops? Are the dogs rabid? Are the killings justified? Concerned about the lack of data, a group of activists around the country created the "Puppycide" database in 2014, which bills itself as "the first nationwide database tracking police shootings of animals" and asks, "When did police begin killing family pets, and why? How did it become normal?"
It now lists 2,749 shootings. Among them:
• In San Diego, police shot a man's service dog when they went to the wrong house in response to a call about a domestic disturbance.
• In Salt Lake City, a police officer looking for a missing child (who was found safely at home 30 minutes later) walked into a man's backyard and shot his Weimaraner when it barked at the officer.
• In Rains County, Texas, a deputy showed up at a family's house to respond to a break-in and fatally shot their blue heeler.
Recent statistics aren't available for Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, but in 2012, the year Kathryn Thomas' pets were killed, the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office shot 26 dogs in total, averaging one every two weeks.
"It's absolutely infuriating," Kyle Krakow, a Wellington-based animal rights activist, says. "These days, I'm more shocked when killer cops are fired and indicted than when they aren't."
"People are outraged, and justifiably so," Nick Atwood, a campaign coordinator with the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, says. "Many times, these shootings could have been avoided."
As the Animal Legal Defense Foundation points out, there are plenty of nonlethal ways to stop a dog in its tracks: for instance, using a baton, Taser, or fire extinguisher. Anyone who's ever had a strange dog run up to them knows it can be intimidating. But it's also worth noting that dogs generally don't present a deadly threat.
"If you kill a police canine, that's a felony," Kevin Anderson, the attorney representing the Thomas family, points out. "It's a double standard."
Few police departments have clear guidelines about when it's acceptable to shoot a pet dog. "We have a use-of-force policy, but it doesn't say anything about dogs," Miami-Dade Police Det. Robin Pickard says.
The Palm Beach Sheriff's Office says deputies are authorized to use deadly force against "an aggressive animal which is a threat to deputies and others." This leaves considerable room for interpretation. Similarly, the Broward Sheriff's Office says force can be used "in defense of one's self or others." In other words, the officer only has to feel threatened — it doesn't matter if the dog has bitten anyone or even barked.
Jim Osorio, a former Texas cop who now trains law enforcement officers around the country to safely interact with dogs, believes it's not vague policies that are a problem, but a lack of education. "I know I never had a training on dogs in the academy," he says. Even though roughly a third of Americans own dogs, officers often aren't taught how to decode the pets' behavior and can't tell if a dog running up to them is being friendly or if it's planning to attack.
The U.S. Department of Justice recently published a book of guidelines for police encounters with dogs, but Osorio is skeptical of whether it will do much good. "That's great they put that book out," he says. "But do you think officers are going to read that book?"
Cops who shoot household pets are likely to be exonerated, as Gillian Palacios found out. Last October, a Florida City Police officer knocked on her door to let her know she'd left her car door open. Immediately, Duchess, her 2-year-old bulldog mix, ran outside to greet him.
Before Palacios could react, the officer had pulled out his gun and fired three times. A video captured by a surveillance camera shows that barely two seconds passed between the time the door opened and the moment Duchess collapsed to the ground in a pool of blood. The department's internal investigation concluded the shooting was justified. As far as Palacios knows, that officer is still on the force.
"I just don't trust the police anymore," she says. "If I were to have a problem, and that's who's going to be coming to my house, I'm not calling 911."
So-called bully breeds such as pit bulls are frequently the victims of police shootings because they're more likely to be perceived as hostile. In May, a Broward Sheriff's Office deputy was conducting a traffic stop in Deerfield Beach outside 81-year-old Elverna Moore's house. When she stepped outside to see what was going on, her son's 4-year-old pit bull, Blue, ran up to the officer, who pulled out his gun and shot the dog.
Anthony Clay, Moore's son and Blue's owner, was at his sister's house when it happened. "Thank God I was across town, because I don't know how I would have reacted," he says.
Making a legal case that an officer was too quick to pull the trigger is tough. "It's very difficult to prove based on eyewitness accounts," says Diane Balkin, a senior staff attorney at Animal Legal Defense Fund. Unless the incident was caught on video, it becomes a case of he-said, she-said. And juries are often predisposed to side with the officer if the dog is a bully breed.
Kathryn Thomas' three dogs, two of which she had raised since they were puppies, weren't "bullies" at all — even though one was named Bully. That mixed breed was "the comedian of the family," she says. He got his name because his black-and-white spotted face made him look like a cow — or, because he was male, a bull. If he misbehaved, he'd put himself into "time-out," sitting quietly in his cage without being told.
Boss was "just a big teddy bear," she says. At the age of 2, he was diagnosed with Addison's disease, a hormonal imbalance that can cause extreme weight loss in dogs. Keeping him healthy meant spending up to $400 on pills every month, which he eagerly wolfed down with a piece of cheese.
Boss and Bully's mother, Kahlua, was what Thomas calls a "regular old Heinz 57 mutt." She thinks she might have been part Great Dane and part bulldog. The Thomases had adopted her from a neighbor, but before they could get her fixed, they discovered she was pregnant.
"We found homes for the other puppies, but not [Boss and Bully], because we were so particular about who we'd give them to," she says. "We were so happy that we decided to keep them... But now I can't help thinking if we hadn't, they might still be alive today."
The dogs slept on their own twin mattress next to her bed and had a spacious air-conditioned doghouse out back.
"They were very intelligent and very attached to us," she says. "If I left the gate open by accident, they wouldn't leave. I think they felt like they were part of the family."
The three dogs were just hanging around the yard that day in 2012 when Palm Beach Sheriff's deputies showed up. Neither Kathryn nor her husband, Bryan Thomas, were home.
Bryan runs a business called Palm Beach Mustangs and buys, repairs, and sells antique Ford Mustangs out of their home. For 22 years, 48-year-old Ricky Woodman, also of Loxahatchee, had worked for him.
As it turned out, Woodman had allegedly violated a 2007 restraining order. Officers had gotten a tip that he could be found at the Thomases' house. That's why PBSO deputy Jason Taylor showed up. He let himself in through the front gate to arrest Woodman, according to a police report.
As Taylor walked up the driveway, Bully, Boss, and Kahlua approached him.
That's where accounts differ. PBSO says the dogs charged. Neighbors who were watching say the pets were simply being friendly. In any case, Taylor took out his gun and shot all three.
Kathryn Thomas was crushed. After she washed up the blood and dug a hole in the yard for the dogs, she and Bryan buried them. "It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," she says.
As they grieved, Bryan and Kathryn looked for ways to take action. Bryan held a one-man protest on the side of Seminole Pratt Whitney Road for ten days, attracting the attention of WPEC Channel 12. Meanwhile, Kathryn created a Facebook page — Justice for Bully, Boss & Kahlua — and began connecting with other pet owners whose dogs had been shot by the police.
Finally, they decided to hire Kevin Anderson, a West Palm Beach lawyer who specializes in police brutality cases, to file a lawsuit on their behalf. They're suing for damages in excess of $15,000 and arguing that PBSO failed to teach its officers to safely interact with dogs. (The PBSO, citing pending litigation, declined to comment on the case.)
"We hope that it could save other dogs if police get proper training," Bryan says.
The trial is set for October.