Early last summer, Lebanon city police officers shot and killed Gunner, a 1-year-old German shepherd/Labrador retriever mix, after he escaped from his owner’s yard.
Since then, police have undergone specialized training on how to handle similar situations with animals. However, the dog’s owner and her attorney appear not to have followed through on their vow to get answers – and a monetary settlement – from the city regarding the dog’s death.
Police said in a statement last year that Gunner was killed on July 6, 2022, “as a last resort … to protect officers and the public from endangerment” after a city resident called to report a stray dog in her yard. However, video of the incident that was taken by the resident showed Gunner on the ground and wagging his tail when one of the three officers on the scene drew his sidearm and fatally shot the dog in the head.
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Gunner had already been cornered, tasered and snagged with a catch pole before being shot. In the statement from Chief Todd H. Breiner, who has since retired, the decision was made to kill the dog because he “became aggressive” and bit the catch pole.
“Based on the dog’s behavior, Officers reasonably believed that if the dog was able to escape the catch pole it would attack one of them,” Breiner said in the release. “The Officers believed the dog to be a danger and a threat.”
They shot Gunner “as a last resort … in order to prevent complete escape from the catch pole and to protect officers and the public from endangerment,” the release said.
‘Traumatized and heartbroken’
Gunner’s owner, Jacklyn Shughart, told LebTown last year that Gunner and her other dog, a German shepherd mix named Riker, apparently escaped from her yard when someone opened the gate to her property. Her family recovered Riker quickly but they were unable to locate Gunner, who they had adopted about a year before from Davis Dog Farm in Grantville.
Gunner was “a curious little puppy,” Shughart said. “Full of energy, and if you didn’t know him you would be scared but he was the biggest lovable goofball to have around.”
Later that day, Lebanon resident Kimberlee Pichardo said she called police when she found a stray dog in her yard. She was inside her home with her children when officers arrived to get the dog, and she recorded a video of the incident — including the moment when Gunner was killed. She insisted in multiple comments on social media that the dog was not aggressive, and no one was in danger.
Pichardo said she was “traumatized and heartbroken” by what she witnessed. She also said police “lied and told her that he was being aggressive towards my children and them,” but said that wasn’t the case. Her children weren’t even outside at the time, she said, and Gunner was obviously more frightened than hostile.
“He was literally hiding and trying to get away from them,” she wrote. “He was not mean or aggressive at all just scared.”
City Mayor Sherry Capello said at a public meeting last year that 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.”
City officials also refused public requests to release the body-cam footage. In August 2022, the city denied an open records request made by LebTown for the footage, although the footage was later made available to the Shughart family and their legal counsel.
‘Willful and wanton misconduct’
Kristina Bergsten, an attorney and founder of the Animal Law Firm, which specializes in cases dealing with animal welfare and animal rights, told LebTown last year that body-cam footage provided by Lebanon city police did “not justify the officers’ actions” when they shot Gunner. Retained by Shughart to represent her after the incident, Bergsten said it was “willful and wanton misconduct” on the officers’ part.
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She also told LebTown that she and the Shughart family “want the police to discipline the officers involved. They should retrain their officers, and come up with policies and procedures for this type of situation.” They also were seeking monetary damages from the city for the loss of their dog, Bergsten said.
A year later, only a part of that plan was realized.
Unfortunately, neither Shugart nor Bergsten responded to multiple requests for comment.
LebTown filed a right-to-know request with the city in July asking for information on “a settlement or release of claims made against the city” in the Gunner case. According to a response from city clerk Cheryl J. Gibson, the city “is not in possession of records reflecting a settlement or release of claims made against the city, its agents, or employees by Jacklyn and Jamie Shugart, in connection with the killing of their dog, Gunner, on July 6, 2022.”
‘Additional training for all officers’
Capello told LebTown in an email on July 27 that it’s her understanding that the Shugarts did not file a lawsuit against the city after the shooting, “and we have not made any settlement.”
However, Capello said, the city did follow through last year “with additional training for all officers that were employed by the City.”
After researching the best option for training officers, Capello found the PA Academy for Animal Care & Control, or PAACC, which trains employees and volunteers to be Humane Society police officers in Pennsylvania.
“Their mission is to provide education, research, resource collaboration and support to agencies involved in the response to animal incidents or the investigation of animal crimes in order to promote professional animal incident response and investigation,” the mayor explained. She and then Chief Breiner discussed the city’s needs with PAACC owner/director/instructor Colleen Shelly who, according to the PAACC website, “retired honorably from the Pennsylvania State Police in 2013 with the rank of Trooper First Class.”
Shelly, the website notes, “dedicated much of her career to animal crimes and animal law issues” and, during her tenure with the state police, developed the Basic Animal Cruelty and Animal Law course offered to federal, state, and municipal police officers.
“We believed they would better understand what our officers face and be able to offer the best methods possible to handle dog incidents as professionally and (humanely) as possible,” Capello said. “All officers had 8 hours of training by the end of last year.”
Additionally, she said, the city purchased new equipment, like the equipment used by PAACC, for officers to use when they respond to animal-related calls.
‘De-escalate the situation’
Shelly, the PAACC trainer, described the training provided to Lebanon in a telephone interview with LebTown.
“We have had several police departments take advantage of this training. We’re offering it again in Hershey in January,” she said. “It’s an important class.”
It’s important, she said, because “police officers, state and local, respond to different kinds of animal incidents. … It may not be something that they do every day, but it’s in their authority to do so.” However, she said, “it’s not something they normally get in their training.” It’s vital, she explained, that officers have an understanding so they can “navigate our complicated animal-control laws.”
“So many households have animals today,” Shelly said. “In any type of incident that they could be responding to, there’s a high likelihood that there will be an animal on site. That changes the whole dynamic.”
There are instances when it is appropriate and necessary to put an animal down, she explained, but “there are statutes that dictate when that can and cannot occur, when it’s lawful and when it’s not.” There are also guidelines explaining methods for humane euthanasia, she said, and a great deal of case law dealing with past incidents.
“It’s very eye-opening, and it generates a lot of discussion among police officers in the class,” Shelly said. “This is not to make these guys experts in canine behavior by any stretch. It’s designed to help them navigate the applicable laws … and give them some tools for their mental toolbox.”
The course covers some of the differences between a scared dog and an aggressive dog, she said, as well as tips and tricks for safely capturing animals and methods for jury-rigging a muzzle or harness out of items commonly found in a patrol car. Shelly said she also discusses ways an officer should “think through a situation and de-escalate it,” to calm an animal down.
“There are things an officer can do to turn a scared dog into an aggressive dog. We don’t want to do that. We want to de-escalate the situation,” she said. “Some people have a legitimate fear of dogs. … But just being afraid of a dog is not a justifiable reason to use force on the dog.”
“It isn’t just about making smart decisions when it comes to handling dogs on scene, so they aren’t dispatching an animal when they shouldn’t,” Shelly added. “Unfortunately, there are times when there is no other choice. … But these animals are people’s property. We have laws to protect them.
“We don’t want to take devastating action against what’s been deemed a family member when it’s not necessary to do that.
‘Other options are available’
Shelly said she is familiar with the incident that led to Gunner’s death last year, but said she didn’t discuss it directly in her class.
“That situation had already taken place, and the district attorney’s office had handled it,” she said. “I didn’t even want to know which police officers were involved. The important thing is, they sent police officers in to get the training.”
She said it would not be appropriate for her to express an opinion on the incident, or whether officers were justified in shooting the Shughart’s pet.
“Every dog is different, every situation is different,” Shelly said. “We want the officers to understand that other options are available.”
Lebanon police officers were “very engaged in the class. They were very interested,” she added. “I was really grateful for the opportunity to provide this training to do them. I certainly hope we see many more police departments attend in January.”
It’s better to get the training before it’s needed, Shelly stressed.
“I’m an advocate of being proactive, not reactive. Let’s not wait until something happens,” she said. “It would be great if every police department had one or two officers who specialized in these types of incidents.”
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