Wednesday May 16, 2012

BRATTLEBORO - Facing continued fallout from a March 21 dog-shooting incident, Brattleboro Police Chief Gene Wrinn said he is soliciting guidance from other departments and has reached out to animal advocates.

But after a sometimes-heated meeting Tuesday with about a dozen residents at Brooks Memorial Library, Wrinn also made it clear that he believes there’s not much more he can say.

"We screwed up. We apologize for that, and we’re going to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again," he said. "We’ve gotten some good feedback. We’re not sweeping anything under the carpet. We’re having conversations."

Wrinn opened Tuesday’s meeting of the Citizen Police Communications Committee by recounting the details of that day: Two officers responded to the Green Street School playground for a dog complaint, and one of the officers used a shotgun to kill the animal.

Wrinn said the dog clearly had been abandoned; the pit-bull-type canine previously has been described as "dying on the ground."

"It was truly unfortunate that the department had to take the dog’s life, but it had to happen," Wrinn said.

Some residents have taken issue with that statement, though. Terry Carter noted that there had been previous sightings of the same dog, but the town’s animal-control officer had not gotten involved.

"I want to give this animal a face," Carter said. "It probably was hungry. It probably was dehydrated."

Wrinn acknowledged that departmental procedure was not followed. Animal incidents are supposed to be filed in a specific way so that the control officer is notified and follows up; that did not happen in this case.

"That’s a training issue," Wrinn said.

He also said he has discussed "what we should have done and what we could have done" with the two officers. But he would not say whether they had been disciplined.

"That’s a personnel matter, and it can’t be discussed," Wrinn said.

Resident Diana Mazzuchi asked whether the department has a policy that officers should have followed in this situation.

"I certainly don’t ever want to see this happen again," Mazzuchi said.

Wrinn said he has contacted other police chiefs to ask whether they have animal policies and, for the most part, has come up empty. Both during and after Tuesday’s meeting, Wrinn also said he’s not sure the department needs another policy.

"You can overload policies," Wrinn said. "You cannot have a policy for every situation."

At the same time, though, Wrinn noted that department representatives have met with the Windham County Humane Society. And he added that "this may be a great opportunity for training for the officers."

Beyond the officers’ handling of the dog, there have been questions about how they handled people in the area at the time and how they conducted an in-house probe of the incident afterward.

Wrinn said the officers should have notified and assisted bystanders. But he also said "the citizens were self-evacuating from the playground."

In response to contentions that one person may have been placed in harm’s way by gunfire, police Capt. Mike Fitzgerald - who handled the department’s internal investigation - said he had studied the scene and did not believe that was possible.

"I don’t think she was in the line of fire," Fitzgerald said.

Both Wrinn and Fitzgerald acknowledged an additional witness to the shooting, but they said she did not want to provide further information beyond filing an initial complaint.

"Clearly, she said that she did not want to be contacted (by police)," Wrinn said. "We honored that wish."

Some who attended Tuesday’s meeting asked for more discussion of that and other issues. Though feelings sometimes were strong - Carter’s voice choked with emotion as she recalled losing her dog as a child - resident Bill Knowles said a public airing of such sentiments was appropriate.

"These police officers need to hear these feelings so maybe they operate a little differently next time," Knowles said.

The controversy also has spurred new interest in the Citizen Police Communications Committee.

"Because this issue has been so intense, it’s raising things that frankly have not been brought before us (previously)," said Tristan Toleno, a committee member.

He noted that the five-member committee already has one vacancy and soon will have another. More information on the committee is available at www.brattleboro.org by clicking on the "town government" tab and then selecting "boards and committees."

"The energy has to be sustained," Toleno said. "The community has to continue to be involved."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.