Editorial: Animal control officers: in harm’s way


Alexandria’s police officers do an excellent job of keeping city residents safe from crime — in 2010, city crime reached a 45-year low. Our police officers are well-trained, well-equipped and normally on the scene quickly if there’s a problem.

Unfortunately, another set of Alexandria public safety servants who risk their lives for city residents are not so well equipped: animal control officers. Though police officers have weapons and training for self-defense with handguns, pepper spray and tasers, animal control officers are only permitted to use catch poles.

Yet they encounter aggressive creatures of the two- and four-legged variety. As evidenced by last week’s vicious attack by a dog on its owner that ended when the co-owner shot and killed the dog in self-defense, animal control officers encounter life-threatening situations. In fact, when Alexandria police officers enter a dwelling with a dog present, it’s policy to call animal patrol first — yet police officers are the ones with weapons.

Asking Alexandria’s animal control officers to protect us from dangerous creatures without giving them the means to protect themselves isn’t just a shame: it borders on criminal. It’s time for city police to collaborate with the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria and arm its officers.

Other jurisdictions in Virginia arm their animal control officers with pepper spray and some allow handguns. It begs the question: Why is Alexandria allowing these public servants to enter harm’s way daily without adequate armor?

Part of the problem is status. Our animal control officers are not technically city employees. They work for the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, which has contracted with the city since 1989 to provide animal control. The city does not allow these contract employees to carry pepper spray or handguns.

It seems a simple solution to arm Alexandria’s animal control officers, and to train them in the use of pepper spray and handguns by piggybacking on existing police training programs and facilities. Yet police have resisted this move, citing liability issues. This is a hollow argument. Knowingly sending an animal control officer into a dangerous situation without adequate tools for protection opens the city to far greater liability than the outside chance an animal control officer will accidently pepper spray a bystander.

Alexandria is well known for being welcoming to pets — dogs in particular. Dogs are welcome in many stores and at outside restaurant tables. But the sad reality is not all pets are gentle. Then there are the other non-pets our animal control officers encounter, such as raccoons, foxes and bats, which can be rabid. Top that off with pet owners, who are sometimes hostile toward animal control officers, and there is a basis to arm animal control officers so they can protect us.