Last week saw a serious attack that hospitalised five police officers and has left several of them with serious injuries. During a police raid five Metropolitan police officers were savaged by a dog. I wish them all a speedy recovery, and my heart goes out to their families. The attack comes at a time where dangerous dog law has been at the forefront of the news agenda.
Last month BBC’s Newsnight ran a special report on dangerous dog legislation (22/02/12) and its implications for dog owners, police forces and the public at large. The programme highlighted the difficulties for police officers trying to deal with dangerous dogs. This latest unfortunate incident serves to remind us of an ongoing problem.
The law concerning dangerous dogs is encapsulated in separate pieces of legislation from 1871 to the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 and 1997. It is sufficiently complex to have required the training of specific Dog Legislation Officers (DLOs) to ensure its proper implementation. Even then, many believe it provides insufficient protection for the public, while the experience of the police suggests it disappoints victims when they realise the limitations to what the police can achieve.
Concerns centre around the fact that if an individual, whether postal worker, nurse, midwife or ordinary member of the public, is attacked by a dog in someone’s home, there is no scope for criminal recourse. Unfortunately such attacks are not an irregular occurrence: as many as 6,000 post office workers are injured each year by dogs and around 70 per cent of those take place on private property (cwu.org).
Individuals who are lawfully on private property have a right to be protected from harm. Yet under the law, if it takes place on private property, police officers do not have the same powers to investigate an attack by a dog that results in serious injury as say they would in an assault or domestic abuse case.
The Metropolitan Police Service has reported a rise in the number of dangerous dogs seized and has set up a Status Dog Unit to specifically address the issue. Criminals are using status dogs as a tool for intimidation and protection. The RSPCA published a review in August 2010 which found that the cost of irresponsible dog ownership to the taxpayer was an estimated £76.8 million a year. The current framework can lead to slow progression of court cases at significant costs to many police forces. Kennelling not only impacts on police budgets, but can have a negative effect on the welfare of the dogs concerned. Many of the dogs end up in the kennels for long periods of time and some may not have been looked after appropriately prior to being seized.
There is increasing demand to change the status quo. Scotland and Northern Ireland have taken steps to address the issue – there is now a growing pressure to do the same in England and Wales. Animal charities and agencies (such as the RSPCA) have been liaising with government to find possible improvements to current legislation. I have been working closely with a variety of interested parties to inform and advise on the current operational implications of dangerous dog legislation. It is not for the police to call for new laws but we do want to share our operational perspective so as to make sure any proposed changes are right for the wider public and practical for officers across England and Wales.
Most dog owners are of course responsible people and would respond positively to a preventative notice from a police officer. Dog control notices were supported by 68 per cent of respondents to a DEFRA consultation. It is irresponsible dog owners that we seek to challenge; the emphasis must always be to ensure that the onus is on the dog owner to be responsible for their animals.
Momentum behind the issue may be growing. Any coming change must improve public safety, be effective for enforcers and provide a set of preventative tools to allow early resolution. This in turn should lead to a quick and cost effective process in the criminal justice system and, equally important, better animal welfare.
Gareth Pritchard is Assistant Chief Constable at North Wales Police, and ACPO lead on dangerous dogs.