New law brings justice for Vinny
By Christine Bolaños
Eight-year-old Landon Pemberton of Liberty Hill fought a rare blood disorder most of his life until going in remission more than a year ago. In June 2013, circumstances would bring forth another battle that he, along with his family and supporters, finally won in May.
Pemberton was playing in his backyard when a Leander police officer arrived and fired three shots at the family’s German shepherd dog. The canine, Vinny, was a therapy dog. The officer didn’t realize he was at the wrong address until it was too late and Pemberton’s life was turned upside down.
“Landon found Vinny and he was devastated. He came to us with blood on his hands crying that Vinny had been shot. He suffered nightmares from this for quite awhile,” his grandmother Renata Simmons said. “He began working with our family and many friends to pass a mandated training program for officers.”
That mandated training program came in the form of House Bill 593, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law on May 18, requiring canine encounter training for peace officers.
“The significance of it being passed is that we finally got closure. We were very disturbed. I felt, after we looked at the whole situation, if these officers understood the situation they would’ve never shot our dog,” Simmons explained. “The majority of the time it’s not just someone being cold blooded or cold hearted. They just didn’t know what was going on.”
Simmons wanted justice for Vinny and to ensure the number of avoidable dog shooting incidents went down. She tackled the issue from a victim and a 30-years-plus dog trainer’s perspective.
“I spoke before the hearing as a victim and dog trainer. Once we looked at the problem we saw that what seemed to be the root of the problem was [lack of] training,” the grandmother said. “If we get these officers trained, if they have a basic understanding, we can actually keep this from happening.”
HB 593 requires that the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement establish a statewide comprehensive training program in canine encounters and canine behavior by Jan. 1, 2016.
Peace officers licensed after Jan. 1, 2016 would need to undergo the training during basic training or within two years of earning their license. Current officers seeking intermediate and advanced proficiency certificates would also need the training beginning on Jan. 1.
The program includes a minimum of four hours of classroom instruction and practical training. According to the House Research Organization’s bill analysis, the program includes recognizing and understanding canine behavior.
The bill requires the content of the training program to be updated at least once every four years. An officer who already completed the training would not be required to take the updated training. The bill takes effect Sept. 1.
Canine as a family member
There were two reasons for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT) involvement in the bill, according to Charley Wilkison, the organization’s executive director. Dogs are viewed and treated as family members today and there is a need to ensure peace officers are best equipped to handle canine encounters for their own safety and the safety of pets.
“It’s not like they shot down a deer or animal out there. They are taking away a member of that family. Officers encounter dangerous animals and people have a higher level of relationship with their animal. All these things play into this and in Texas there was no training required,” Wilkison said. “One of the biggest crises that has erupted is that officers have been in a situation where they felt they’ve been forced to shoot a dog because the dog was fixing to attack them or they were in a situation where they felt helpless or in a situation where a dog could keep them from entering lawfully.”
The incident that led Wilkison and CLEAT to become involved with the bill occurred in Cleburne. According to News Channel 4’s website, KFOR.com, a woman became trapped in her car by three dogs. A police officer arrived and his body camera captured him firing three shots at a seven-month-old pitbull.
The video sparked rage from dog owners and animal rights advocates and became a public relations nightmare for Cleburne Police. The situation escalated to the point the police officer and his family began receiving death threats, and they were forced to move out of state for their own safety.
Wilkison said CLEAT offered free training to Cleburne police officers after the incident.
“We hired an expert canine trainer who is a former officer. There aren’t many of those around right at this second. These guys know everything about how you would encounter a dog. We offered this training free,” Wilkison said.
Around that time, CLEAT began discussions with Texas Humane Legislation Network (THLN), which had previously, but unsuccessfully, tried to get a similar bill passed. Together, they worked on the language for the bill.
Significance of bill’s passage
He views passage of the bill as a win-win-win for dogs, their owners and peace officers.
“Hopefully dog owners can breathe a little easier knowing that the officer is going to know more. An officer before this could either run or shoot. This is going to give them more information and they’re going to be able to determine different courses of action,” Wilkison continued.
For Simmons’ family, passage of the bill has been a long time coming. The family has devoted the last two years to advocating for their cause.
The proudest moment in the grandmother’s life was when her grandson got up to speak at the April 28 Senate Criminal Justice hearing regarding HB 593.
“He surprised everyone when they asked if anyone had anything to say about the bill. Landon stood up and asked to speak. It is heartwarming and amazing that such a young child would have the courage to do this and his testimony was so emotional for all of us that have worked so hard to see this pass,” Simmons said, with awe in her voice.
Simmons is on a mission to see similar training mandated nationwide.
“Chief (Greg) Minton of Leander – that was the group that shot our dog Vinny – he has done more to stand beside us to help pass the bill than any other officer besides the chief in Fort Worth,” Simmons said. “We’ve been working with other states to get this bill passed across the US. It’s going to be a blueprint for the way to do this.”
Beyond that, the Leander Police Chief has been instrumental in helping Landon get over the violent loss of Vinny. He presented Landon with a rarely awarded coin for his activism and courage.
Simmons encouraged those interested in joining the cause to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.