Police auditor says use of force justified in shooting of dog

The Fairfax County Independent Police Auditor has cleared an officer who shot a pit bull during the pursuit and arrest of an armed robbery suspect last year near South Kings Highway.

In a report published on Friday, auditor Richard G. Schott says that the unnamed officer was justified in using lethal force against the dog.

“While law enforcement officers assume certain reasonable risks by virtue of their chosen profession, they are not required to assume unreasonable risks,” Schott wrote. “Because an aggressive pit bull can cause serious injury (or even death) to people, [the officer’s] decision to use deadly force against the dog to prevent it from attacking him was objectively reasonable.”

Shelton Coates mugshot

Shelton Coates

The incident in question happened on Oct. 24, 2017 in the Mount Vernon Police district. Two officers were conducting surveillance of a home that the suspect, identified as Shelton Coates, was believed to be staying at on Brick Hearth Court (see map). After spotting Coates leave the house to walk his dog, the officers approached him to make an arrest and a foot chase ensued, according to the report.

During the chase, Coates let go of the dog’s leash, eventually running to a fenced area with the pit bull following behind him. Coates climbed the fence, leaving the dog behind. One of the officers followed Coates over the 6-foot fence, but the dog approached the second officer before he could begin climbing, the report stated. The officer told investigators that when the dog was approximately three feet away, he shot it in the head once, the report stated.

Coates was eventually apprehended the officers. During an interview with FCPD internal affairs officers, Coates said he believed the dog was shot from behind by the police during the chase, the report states. However an autopsy performed on the dog determined the bullet entered through the front of the head, according to the report.

Neither of the officers involved in the arrest were wearing body cameras; the FCPD’s body camera pilot program in the Mount Vernon police district had not begun at the time of the incident. Footage from the officers’ vehicle camera was reviewed, both by the auditor and by the police department’s internal affairs bureau.

The FCPD’s own investigation determined that the officer’s actions were within department policy, and the auditor backed up those findings in his report.

“The internal investigation into this incident was, in my opinion, complete, thorough, objective, impartial, and accurate,” Schott wrote. “All appropriate interviews were conducted, and all potential evidence was pursued.”

Fairfax County began using an independent police auditor in 2017 after the Board of Supervisors voted to create the position at the recommendation of the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission, which was created to review police policies and practices in the wake of the shooting of an unarmed civilian in 2014. The shooting of the dog was the seventh case reviewed by the independent auditor.

Schott noted that while the officer was justified in this particular case, department policy does instruct officers to use lesser force first when dealing with aggressive animals.

“Specifically, [the policy] provides that ‘[w]hen an animal is attacking, force should be used progressively by officers to protect a domestic animal, another individual, or
themselves, from an attacking animal. ….. Less-lethal force strategies should be developed to establish control over domesticated animals when planning all operations.’” Schott wrote. “Unfortunately, in this rapidly evolving and unexpected situation, [the officer] did not have a less-lethal force option available.”

The armed robbery charge against Coates was dropped in February 2018, according to D.C. Superior Court records. Coates still faces multiple charges in Fairfax County related to the Oct. 24, 2017 incident, according to online case information. His next court hearing is scheduled for Sept. 12. A call to his attorney on Friday was not immediately returned.