This Is Why Breed Discrimination Laws Are Wrong

Written by: Jeff Theman

February 2, 2016

The last time the phrase “Beauty’s only skin deep” was said to me, I was interviewing a former 20-year U.S. Marine veteran, Leonard Shelton, about his experiences with the city of Lakewood, Ohio. Lakewood is a west-side suburb less than 7 miles from downtown Cleveland, positioned along the shores of Lake Erie. The city has been recognized for several state and national “best of” lists over the last few years, including:

“10 Most Exciting Suburbs In America,” says Movoto Real Estate (#6, May 2014).

“12 Coolest Suburbs Worth A Visit,” claims Travel & Leisure (#4, 2010).

“Best Places To Raise Your Kids,” according to BusinessWeek (#36, 2010).

Just to name a few.

The reasons above were part of the attraction when I chose Lakewood for my residence. It’s a beautiful community with huge green trees lining the tree lawns, you can find flower patches around the city, and of course, the close proximity to downtown and amenities the lake offers. As a mid-twenty-something, the nightlife on Madison and Detroit Avenues also appealed to me. But more than anything, I was attracted to the perception of its friendly, progressive attitude towards dogs. Whenever I visited, I saw people out-and-about walking their dogs around the neighborhood. This was the key component for me, as dogs have always been a huge part of my life and my family’s households. So what exactly did Leonard, who is African-American, mean when he used that expression to describe Lakewood?

In May of 2008, Lakewood City Council proposed a ban against the ownership of pit bull dogs. The law passed in July, and was in full effect by December of that same year. Due to massive public backlash, and being at the center of a Fox 8 News I-Team investigation for questionable practices pertaining to the proposed law, the council wrote in a grandfather clause, allowing existing dogs deemed “Pit Bull” to stay as long as their owners complied with strict restrictions outlined in the new ordinance. This allowed them to save a little face for the embarrassing act as well as achieve what their immediate goal was: No more pit bulls in Lakewood.

As a resident at the time of two years, I attended each and every one of these council meetings, filming them for a documentary titled, “Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent” (GTPI). When I began the project, I wasn’t a Pit Bull owner…I wasn’t even a Pit Bull advocate. Heck, I didn’t even share my home with any dog of any breed or type – one of the only periods in my life where I didn’t. I was just an aspiring filmmaker, who also happened to be a dog lover. Guilty as charged. At the onset, believe me, I also had my opinions about Pit Bull dogs, and they weren’t always delightful ones. The only thing that mattered to me was getting to the undeniable truth about the issue, to finally put this one to bed, even if it meant the results were not favorable to the dogs. The following year (2009), I learned about the importance of Leonard to this project, and for me personally.

Guilty Til Proven Innocent Poster Images

After serving his country in Desert Storm in Iraq, and later in Kosovo searching for Bin Laden, Leonard was diagnosed with PTSD due to the trauma of losing friends in combat and the insanity that goes along with war. He then came home to Cleveland to fight a new internal battle, chose Lakewood as his residence, and became a recluse – symbolic to the tortured prison he was alone battling in his mind. Friends of Leonard finally convinced him to adopt a dog. “This will be good for you,” they said. Listening to Leonard describe the bond he immediately felt with Rosco – the dog they picked for him – his face lit up with an infectious smile. But those times were short lived. Leonard’s next fight would be for his faithful companion – his dog.

On an April weekday in 2009 during morning rush hour traffic, Leonard was walking Rosco down the street on the sidewalk of a major road when a police officer spotted him, blew his horn, and parked along the side of the road to interrogate him. According to Mr. Shelton, the officer asked for his identification with barely one foot out of his car, never even explaining why he needed it. When Leonard told the officer he didn’t have it on him – after all, he was just letting out his dog for his morning bathroom break – the officer began asking additional questions:

“What’s your name?” “What’s your social security number?” “What’s your phone number?” “What’s your address?” And finally: “What kind of dogis that?”

“He’s a Boston-Terrier mix,” said Leonard. That’s what Lakewood Animal Hospital had told him. The officer then said, “Well, we’ll see about that,” and called animal control to perform a visual identification. After about 20 minutes standing on the corner of Clifton Blvd., the animal warden arrived and confirmed the officer’s suspicion. Just like that, Rosco was declared “Pit Bull” and had to leave the city. Leonard went into an even darker depression.

Leonard Shelton

I was fortunate enough to gain Leonard’s trust. He allowed me to interview him for the film and we became friends through all this. He explained it to me best this way: Before Rosco, he wouldn’t leave the house, unless he needed to do something essential to living (i.e., grocery shopping). He even lived just a few short blocks away from a grocery store, close enough to walk, but chose to drive so he could get what he needed and quickly return. When Rosco arrived, he had no choice but to go outside. Rosco needed to be let out for walks and bathroom breaks. Instead of watching what was going on around him, Leonard was able to focus on Rosco. This dog was helping him survive in the world as a civilian again.

I felt early on in my research about breed specific legislation – or more appropriately, breed discrimination – that there were other issues embedded under the surface to disguise what this was truly about. It became clearer as I went through the filmmaking process just what those intentions started as.

During the 1980s and ’90s, this law spread like wild fire, hitting several larger urban cities. In one paragraph of a report by sociologist Arnold Arluke called “Ethnozoology and the Future of Sociology” (published in the 2003 International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Volume 23, Number 3), a single excerpt about the collaborative effort between law enforcement and animal control explained it with clarity:

“To accomplish their overlapping aims, members of this task force carried out joint ‘sweeps’ in suspected inner-city neighborhoods to spot ‘suspicious’ dog owners and disarm them by taking their animals. Driving through certain high-risk urban neighborhoods allowed for opportunistic spotting of African Americans walking with Pit Bulls on sidewalks or sitting on stoops with their animals, the assumption being that these dogs were not mere pets but illegal and dangerous weapons. Task force members would ask if dogs were properly licensed and, if not, seize and take them to the local shelter. Of course, the apparent owner was told that a license could be applied for if proper forms were completed, including name, address, phone number, all to be verified. However, task-force members believe that these individuals do not want to show their licenses if they have them or apply for new ones if they do not, in order to remain anonymous from authorities.”

There is ample evidence that not only suggests, but proves, that these laws had racial (or at the very least social class intolerance) undertones to it. This same sentiment has also been stated, perhaps unknowingly, in an interview we conducted with former lawmaker Neal Zimmers, who authored (along with others) the original Ohio statewide “breed specific” restriction in 1987, which stood until its repeal in 2012:

“We had testimony from police departments, from humane departments, in basically the urban areas, inner-city urban areas where you see a lot of Pit Bulls. And often they’re the lower…income…areas…” said Mr. Zimmers.

ASPCA Adoptable Pit Bull

I recently attended the third and final reading of a proposed bill to ban Pit Bull dogs in Shaker Heights, an east-side Cleveland suburb. I became aware of this pending ordinance introduced by Shaker Heights mayor Earl Leiken and his administration late last year. It was sparked by a terrible and unfortunate incident where a reported Pit Bull dog fatally attacked an elderly Cleveland woman visiting family. This is a tragedy that no community should face, and there are just no words that can change the outcome of it. Shaker Heights councilwoman Nancy Moore also supported the proposal for a Pit Bull ban, with her primary reason to implement a preventative measurement that will stop a dog attack before it occurs.

According to her:

“When the mayor told us that he would be proposing revisions to those laws, that will better ensure public safety before a dog attacked, and that this law would be enforceable within our current resources, I believed it was needed.”

This is a question I have asked myself countless times through the last few years: Will there ever be a year where there are zero fatalities caused by dogs? In the U.S., there’s an average of about 25 dog-related fatalities each year. Compared to other causes of accidental death, that number is disproportionately low, especially considering the amount of contact we have with dogs, both familiar and foreign, every day. The idea that banning Pit Bull dogs from the city will prevent dogs from attacking is a fallacy. They are not one in the same, and never will be.

What councilwoman Moore described is part of Hollywood fiction, a box-office hit titled ‘Minority Report’ starring Tom Cruise. In this film, Cruise’s character is Captain of a law enforcement team called “Pre-Crime,” which apprehends criminals before they commit the crime their intelligence technology predicted they will. But that was a movie and this is real life. As long as we have dogs, we will have occasional mishaps where dogs behave badly, no matter how rare these instances actually occur. The challenge is to effectively enforce the laws that truly protect public safety. For example, leash laws, which Shaker Heights doesn’t even currently have.

Here we are in 2016 with seemingly incremental progress made in the bigger picture. Not to downplay the progress that has been made, but I have been to more than my share of council meetings since I started researching this issue, and seen the same pro-ban arguments get repeated over and over, to the point of becoming extremely predictable. There’s the annual Merritt Clifton “Dog Attack Deaths and Maimings” study or DogsBiteDotOrg statistics, both of which are entirely comprised of (often inaccurate) media reports, and both have been torn to shreds time and time again, losing all credibility.

Precious the Pit Bull

Coincidentally, councilwoman Moore had multiple conversations with the DogsBiteDotOrg founder and her Ohio protégé, Carol Miller, seeking advice on how to discredit certain studies that hold substance contrary to their agenda. I found this disheartening for a public official to disregard the validity of most modern day studies that disprove her opinion, in favor of biased information by people who are not qualified to speak about dog behavior. Especially considering the DogsBiteDotOrg founder’s public track record for deceiving or misrepresenting information, including the same media reports she uses to prove her case.

In this final reading to pass the ban on Pit Bull dogs, Mayor Leiken held a presentation before council voted on the proposed ordinance, which eventually failed 5-2. In it, he referenced Lakewood, Ohio – implying they reached out to them for advice when crafting this ordinance. Even though the majority of council eventually voted against it because of differing opinions among council regarding some language, I didn’t walk away feeling like logic won. Scary for when they finally do sort out their dangerous and vicious dogs laws in the near future.

Remember Leonard Shelton and his dog, Rosco, from Lakewood? Leonard eventually moved out, got his dog back, sued Lakewood and settled out of court for a sizable amount in damages in 2010. That is not the first time Lakewood has been sued, either, using tax payer dollars defending the ban. Recently, another Lakewood family – one with a little girl battling Cystic Fibrosis  – has had to fight to keep their family dog. A dog whose only crime is looking a certain way. Void of any reputable facts, the unnecessary pain this law causes sinks further than skin deep.

It reminds me of a question posed in our film: “Do we have a dangerous dog breed problem, or dangerous laws targeting dogs?”

Featured image via Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent

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Written by: Jeff Theman

February 2, 2016

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