John Correia wants his dog back. He hasn’t seen the dog, a Labrador-pitbull mix named Moose, since the day the La Mesa police officer shot at the dog and missed.
“I raised him from a pup,” Correia said. “Moose is a lap dog; I mean, he wants to sit on your lap.”
That’s not the dog that a La Mesa cop saw on December 11th, however. He saw a pitbull charging and snarling. So he drew his gun and fired. The official statement at the scene to a roving, freelance news cameraman came from Lt. Brian Stoney, who described how Moose bit the officer twice before the officer fired.
With an officer-involved shooting investigation still underway, the police department is saying very little about what happened — the only information available comes from that TV footage. The police declined to provide a copy of the incident report to Correia (and to this reporter). We were referred to the business office, which has a ten business-day waiting period (two weeks).
The volunteer cop — a reserve officer with more than 30 years of free law-enforcement service donated to a city he doesn’t live in — on December 11th stopped to tell Correia he had to move a rolled-up rug and a chair out of the parking zone at the end of his driveway. He’d put them there with a “Free” sign. Correia said he was cleaning his garage and insists it wasn’t in the part of the street where cars are supposed to drive. The conversation turned loud, and then Moose appeared out of the side yard.
“I think he reacted to the stress in their voices,” says Laurie Ellertson, a friend who is trying to get Correia’s dog off death row. “He might have looked scary but he isn’t. He’s a big baby.”
But no one wants to see a big, broad dog charging.
Whatever was driving the dog, the dog ran up to the officer and the officer drew his weapon. For a few seconds, the officer yelled something like “stop your dog” and then he fired. Correia said he had already grabbed Moose by the collar and dragged him into the yard once; he was sure the dog wasn’t hurt.
“I had some of the ground spray up on me from the ricochet, little chips that burned,” he said.
Neighbors say they heard a lot of shouting that ended with a gunshot. They also told this reporter that there hadn’t been any problems with Correia’s dogs. Many hadn’t noticed the dogs at all. Police confirmed they’ve had no prior complaints about Moose.
After the shooting, police — who also serve as animal control in the city — swarmed the scene. Video shows half a dozen cops milling around, confirmed by Lt. Chad Bell.
“We have to account for every round,” he said. “A shooting brings out the lieutenants and the captains and the detectives.”
The twice-bitten officer declined medical treatment and ended up with abrasions, Bell said. Bell didn’t want to speak directly about the incident but said that officers don’t fire warning shots. “We don’t teach anybody to shoot at the ground,” he said.
An officer is allowed to shoot if he or she feels fear for your life or another person’s, or fear of being gravely hurt.
After the incident, the chief signed an order that Moose be put down — which is all it takes. There weren’t any evaluations of Moose before or after the order. The dog remains in custody at the El Cajon Animal Shelter, in a restricted area. Correia has not been allowed to see his dog.
One animal expert said that after so long in a restricted situation, without visitors or exercise or the other interactions that keep dogs healthy, it would be very difficult to determine what the dog was like normally.
Three years ago the San Diego County Grand Jury released a report recommending that a half dozen police departments across the county — including La Mesa, El Cajon, and Oceanside — get trained on dealing with dangerous and aggressive dogs.
Robbie Benson, the president of San Diego Animals Worthy of Life, has trained a number of officers at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and other agencies. She has said that pepper spray is remarkably effective for getting dogs to back off.
Before that, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report recommending specific training. The introduction states: “With the number of dog fatalities by law enforcement on the increase, as well as concerns for officer safety, law enforcement officers must advance beyond automatically using their weapons when encountered by a dog. There are many other ways to ensure public and officer safety through diffusing dog encounters.”
Bell said La Mesa does train officers through the police academy and with its own animal-control officer, Claudia Newmark, who is also a member of the police department. He doesn’t know if the reserve cop who shot at Moose (who was trained 30 years ago, before such training was even a thought) received the department's internal training in the past few years. Newmark did not respond to email or phone messages.
Meanwhile, the lone camera man showed up after Lt. Stoney directed an officer to take Correia into the house. Correia said he asked if the dog should come in, too, and was told no. Later he saw the press conference on the news, with Moose running along the fence barking, and he felt set up.
“That’s Moose reacting to a lot of stress — being shot at and me being stressed and then a bunch of strangers showing up and basically taking over our place,” he said. “But it sure looked bad on TV. I should have put him in the house.”
After the presser, the animal-control officer came and hauled Moose away, dropping him at the El Cajon Animal Shelter.
Correia feels particularly bad that he brought them the dog.
“Moose was shaking, he was so scared, and I just made him go and get in their truck,” Correia said. “I was trying to comply and to not get him hurt, but later I realized I handed him over to die.”
Police told Correia that they would keep the dog for a couple of days in quarantine, he said. But Moose never came home and has been on death row in the no-kill shelter ever since.
No one has formally evaluated his temperament, staff said and Stoney confirmed.
Correia and Ellertson started trying to get Moose back and found out the plan was to euthanize him.
“We were told it would be a few days in quarantine, and then they wouldn’t give him back,” Ellertson said. “We got a notice in the mail and we still don’t have the incident report.”
Ellertson went to court to plead for Moose’s life — via a temporary restraining order against the shelter and La Mesa animal-control police officer. On February 2nd, they got it from a Superior Court judge.
Now they’re preparing to fight for his life and bring him home.
The hearing is set for February 23rd, but the City of La Mesa has not provided any documents, which lawsuit participants are required to share. They have indicated they will provide the documents to Ellertson the day before the hearing, on February 22nd.
Bell and Stoney declined to say whether there had been previous complaints about or previous shots-fired investigations concerning the officer, citing personnel privacy issues. It's not clear whether or not the city will provide that information before the hearing.