Pit bulls are increasingly replacing knives as the weapon of choice among gang members, with equally deadly results. Gordon Rayner joins the police dog units as they raid suspected owners, and asks where the law that was meant to protect us went wrong.
It is the morning school run in Bethnal Green, east London, when five police vehicles pull up in convoy outside a low-rise council block. Twelve police officers jump out and stride silently along a narrow walkway to the door of a second-floor maisonette. An elderly woman, who could be forgiven for thinking she is witnessing an anti-terror raid as she sees helmets and riot shields go by, leans out from next door, and is promptly told to get back inside.
At a signal from his commander, a constable attacks the door with a metal battering ram and as the lock gives way his colleagues move in. There are shouts from inside the flat, and a blue shoulder-bag is thrown from a back window in an attempt to hide the cannabis and cocaine it contains. After arresting and handcuffing a 27-year-old man who lives here with his mother and teenage sister, the officers find what they are after: pit bull terriers.
The raid has been organised by the Metropolitan Police’s Status Dog Unit, which was set up last year to deal with the escalating problem of illegal fighting dogs. Last year 5,221 people, a quarter of them children, were admitted to hospital in England after being attacked by dogs, compared with a total of just over 3,000 a decade ago. Thousands more were treated as outpatients.
Within 10 minutes, two pit bulls are led out of the property by dog handlers. On this occasion the dogs come quietly, on the end of a rope leash, but the officers know that they may be attacked by dogs or their owners, who are often violent too, and so they had come prepared for the worst, carrying carbon dioxide fire extinguishers (the most effective means of keeping a pit bull at bay) and snaffles – metal poles with a loop on the end, for snaring aggressive animals at arm’s length.
‘You never know what’s behind that door,’ Sgt Ian McParland, the operational head of the Status Dog Unit, says. ‘One of our officers went into a property recently and the owner threw a pit bull at him. He ended up in hospital with bites and tears on his arm.’
The Bethnal Green flat is typical of what the unit’s officers find when they carry out search warrants, usually acting on tip-offs from members of the public or RSPCA or council dog wardens. One pit bull is discovered in a filthy living-room, where it has ripped sofa cushions to shreds, while another is found in an upstairs bedroom. Two Staffordshire bull terriers that also share the tiny flat are allowed to stay – they are not banned breeds.
‘Some of the places we go into are absolutely appalling,’ McParland says. ‘We’ve been in flats where one of the bedrooms is given over to the dogs to defecate in because they are not allowed out. We’ve found dogs living in cages in under-stair cupboards, or flats where there’s hardly a stick of furniture and the floor is covered in newspaper, urine, faeces, and a cage in the corner containing a bitch and puppies.’
The Status Dog Unit was set up in March last year after the Met’s dog handlers found they were spending so much time dealing with dangerous dog seizures that their own working dogs were sitting idle. The unit’s six full-time officers are certainly not short of work. The Bethnal Green raid is one of 14 carried out on the same day in the borough of Tower Hamlets, which has one of the largest fighting dog populations in London. In total, 12 dogs are seized during today’s Operation Canis raids, and four people are arrested, either for drugs offences or for obstructing the police.
In the early part of this decade the Met was seizing a steady average of about 42 illegal dogs per year, then in 2006-07 the number suddenly jumped to 173 and has doubled every year since. In the past 12 months the Status Dog Unit has seized 1,259 illegal dogs, the vast majority of them pit bull types. ‘At the same time that gang culture was becoming established here, hip-hop and rap singers in the US started using pit bulls in their pop videos, and suddenly it became fashionable to have one of these dogs,’ McParland says. ‘They became a status symbol for a lot of the youth in London.’
But pit bulls also have a more practical use. They are as deadly as any knife or gun, and with one crucial advantage: while carrying a gun brings a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a knife four years, anyone caught possessing an illegal dog faces a maximum prison sentence of six months, which is rarely imposed. Their value to criminals was graphically illustrated last month by the case of Chrisdian Johnson, a gang member from south London who became the first killer to be convicted of a murder in which a fighting dog was used. He was the also the first killer to be caught using DNA from his own dog, after advances in DNA technology enabled police to prove that it was his dog that had been involved in the attack.
Johnson’s victim, a 16-year-old rival called Oluwaseyi Ogunyemi, was trying to climb a fence to get away from Johnson when he released his bull terrier, Tyson, which dragged Ogunyemi to the ground and held him in its teeth before Johnson stabbed the boy to death. Most victims of fighting dogs, though, simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, such as five-year-old Ellie Lawrenson, mauled to death by her uncle’s pit bull in St Helens, Merseyside, in 2007, and John-Paul Massey, four, who died after being attacked by his uncle’s bull mastiff in Liverpool last November.
For those of us old enough to remember, those horrific attacks on children brought a terrible sense of déjà vu. In May 1991 a six-year-old girl called Rukhsana Khan suffered such appalling injuries in an attack by a pit bull terrier in Bradford that pictures of her ravaged face dominated the news for days. The public cried out for action to outlaw what the tabloids termed ‘devil dogs’, forcing Kenneth Baker, the Home Secretary at the time, to rush through a new law, the Dangerous Dogs Act, aimed at wiping out Britain’s entire pit bull population. The Act made it illegal to own or breed four types of fighting dog: pit bulls; the dogo argentino, a dog bred for hunting boar; the Japanese tosa, a huge mastiff and the world’s oldest breed of fighting dog; and the fila brasileiro, bred specifically for aggression. The Dangerous Dogs Act did have a temporary effect on pit bull numbers, which declined in the 1990s to such an extent that they dropped off the political agenda.
But, under pressure from animal charities, in 1997 Parliament watered down the Act by introducing an amendment giving magistrates discretionary powers to give illegal breeds back to their owners, subject to certain restrictions, if the owners are deemed responsible enough to keep the dogs under control. (Magistrates decide on the basis of evidence given in reports by the police, defendants’ evidence, and supporting documents such as letters from vets or neighbours. Notably, seven months before Ogunyemi’s murder Chrisdian Johnson had been allowed by a court to keep Tyson after he agreed to have the dog microchipped and insured.) Unsurprisingly, pit bull numbers immediately started to rise again, and the population is now thought to have passed the 1991 figure of 10,000.
Kenneth (now Lord) Baker believes the 1997 amendment was a mistake. ‘The intention of the Dangerous Dogs Act was to eliminate breeds like pit bulls in this country,’ he says. ‘For the first five years it worked very well, but as soon as the Government gave in to animal charities the whole thing was doomed. There is no need for anyone to have these dogs, and to suggest that you can somehow educate the owners – well, I just don’t think that’s realistic if you look at who the owners are.’
And while the Act allows for a maximum prison sentence of up to six months, or a £5,000 fine, owners know that custodial sentences are almost unheard of. On September 25 last year, Sgt McParland was called to one of the worst incidents he has attended. A 23-year-old woman was alone in a flat in Tottenham, north London, with her boyfriend’s two pit bulls when one of them suddenly turned on her, without warning. ‘By the time the emergency services arrived her arm had effectively been torn off at the elbow,’ McParland says. ‘It was hanging by a thread of skin and couldn’t be saved. When I got there the dogs had been shot by armed officers and the woman had been taken away in an ambulance, but it was a grim scene. There was a lot of blood. The owner of the dogs got a 12-month conditional discharge and a 12-month ban from keeping dogs, with costs of £330.’ Is he shocked by the leniency of the sentence? ‘I’ll let you draw your own conclusions,’ he says.
It is hardly surprising, then, that current sentences hold no fear for the owners of such dogs. Gordon, a 22-year-old from Shepherd’s Bush, west London, is the proud owner of a cross-bred fighting dog that affords him the all-important ‘respect’ on the streets and makes him feel protected. ‘Nowadays, that’s just as good as having a knife,’ he says with a nod to his dog, Rocky. ‘The damage that could do to a person if it’s used in the right way, that could inflict more pain than a knife because it’s going to be crushing bones and piercing skin. If you were to own a dog and it killed someone, the sentences ain’t that big. I’ve thought of the consequences of being arrested but if you’ve got options it’s better to let the dog bite the person than your life being ended.’
Disturbing as his attitude may be, Gordon sums up the mentality of many status dog owners. ‘Ninety per cent of the problem is with the owners, not the dogs,’ McParland says. ‘Most of these kids genuinely love their dogs, but they don’t understand the dogs enough to be able to look after them properly. If someone carries a knife or a gun, you have to aim that gun at someone for it to be dangerous. Dogs don’t have to be aimed at anyone. Pit bulls can be well-socialised animals, just like any other breed, if they are well treated and trained correctly, but all too often they’re not.’
It is too early to say which category the two dogs taken from the flat in Bethnal Green will fall into. Like every other dog that is seized, they will be taken to one of 12 dog pounds used by the Met (their locations are a closely guarded secret to prevent unwelcome visits from owners). This is only the beginning of a process that lasts an average of six months before a dog’s fate is decided. As the dogs found during Operation Canis arrive at the kennels, McParland and his team assess each one to decide whether the animal can be classed as a ‘pit bull type’ dog (or another banned breed), depending on physical characteristics such as the shape of the head. The officers must then write a report for the Crown Prosecution Service and, in the case of a not guilty plea by the owner, appear in court to give evidence when magistrates decide whether the dog should be destroyed. Each dog will take up an average of three days of an officer’s time, from the moment he applies for a warrant to the eventual disposal of the case by a court. The Met currently has 471 dogs in its kennels awaiting their day in court. Next year’s budget for kennelling dangerous dogs is £2.85 million in London alone.
Only half of the dogs that are seized by the Met end up being destroyed. The rest are returned to their owners, with no rehabilitation, but after being put on a register of exempted animals. None, however, can be found a new home; the Dangerous Dogs Act deems this to be too risky and allows only for dogs to be either destroyed or returned to their original owner.
One thing is obvious about the two dogs seized in Bethnal Green: they are healthy, with no signs of injury, suggesting they have not been involved in fighting. Organised dog fights, where animals fight to the death in a 12ft square pit, are relatively rare, and when they do happen they are surrounded by such secrecy that police seldom know about them. The far greater problem is so-called chain fighting, or ‘rolling’, when two owners allow their animals to attack each other while being held on a leash in a park, to prove who has the toughest dog.
The RSPCA, which until six years ago received only two reports per month of dog fighting, now has two or three calls a day to rescue dogs that have either been involved in chain fighting or have been tortured by their owners to make them more aggressive. Typically they have been beaten with sticks or burnt with cigarettes, forcing the dogs to bite back, then rewarded with food until the dog learns that it must attack to be rewarded.
In order to strengthen the animal’s jaws many owners train them to hang from tree branches by their teeth or to tear bark from the trunks, damaging or destroying thousands of trees across the country. In some London parks 80 per cent of trees have suffered damage from dog biting, forcing councils to spend tens of thousands of pounds putting protective guards around trees.
For the owners, having the most vicious dog can bring financial rewards, as well as status. The most savage animals become prized studs or bitches for backstreet breeders who sell the illegal offspring – genetically programmed to attack – for up to £500 each. Such is the demand for pit bulls that many are being born in battery-farm conditions, in cages stacked on top of each other in tiny flats.
‘We see some very sorry sights,’ McParland says. ‘We did a warrant in Tottenham recently when we found 30 pit bulls in a small two-bedroom house, and we did another job where we found 21 pit bulls in a one-bedroom maisonette. The breeder had even kept details recording payments made in £25 weekly instalments for the puppies.’
On another police raid, this time on a council semi in Yardley, Birmingham, officers from the country’s only other dedicated dangerous dog unit find evidence of dog breeding. In the kitchen of an upstairs flat is a 3 x 2ft cage shoehorned between a fridge and the wall, its bars bent out of shape by powerful puppies that have tried to escape. The lino on the floor of the kitchen has been ripped up by a dog’s claws and the door frame has been chewed from floor to waist height. ‘This has been used as a whelping room,’ says Pc Keith Evans, one of two officers based at the West Midlands Police’s Dangerous Dogs Unit. ‘The dogs have been put in here to mate, then the bitch and the puppies have been kept in the cage.’
Evidence found in the flat reveals how closely the ownership of pit bulls is linked to criminality. In the living-room, a wiry young man in a woolly hat sits handcuffed on the stained brown-suede sofa. He is not the occupant of the flat, and he is not saying much, but when an officer finds a small bag of cannabis on the glass-topped coffee table, between a mouldering Pot Noodle and a jumbo-sized bottle of Coke, he finally gives them his name. A quick check over the police radio reveals that he is wanted for assault.
As the other officers in the nine-strong team search the flat they find several concealed knives and a meat cleaver hidden under a mattress. They search the loft and find it lined with reflective foil; an air vent has been cut into the roof, heat lamps hang from the joists, and trays of plant pots, with the stumps of harvested cannabis plants poking from them, cover the floor, fed by a sophisticated automatic watering system.
‘There is a massive link between drugs and firearms and dangerous dogs,’ Evans says. ‘Often the dogs will be used to guard drugs, cash or weapons, but the most serious criminals won’t take the dogs outside because they won’t risk being stopped for having an illegal dog. Dogs that are kept for fighting won’t be allowed outside either – the giveaway when we raid those houses is that they often have running machines to exercise the dogs indoors. They tend to have crude medical kits to treat the animals’ injuries, including Euthatal, which is used for putting dogs down.’
On the way back from the raid in Yardley, Pc Evans stops off at one of the kennels where the pit bulls are housed as they await a court date. It has the look and feel of a canine death row. One pit bull gives an extraordinary display of its power as it jumps up at a metal rope holding open the trapdoor to its bedding area and bites clean through the quarter-inch-thick wire with one snap of its jaws.
Yet Evans has no compunction about opening the door of one of the cages and putting his hand in to stroke a dog that moments before looked, frankly, deranged. ‘With most dogs you can play with them,’ he says as he strokes the pit bull’s chin. ‘But with a pit bull you mustn’t arouse it, as they’ve been bred to reach an extremely high state of arousal very quickly, and for a long period. If you play with a cocker spaniel it might nip your finger if you do the wrong thing, but with a pit bull it will bite and hold, and that’s what’s causing the life-changing injuries we are seeing.’
Back at headquarters, Evans and his colleague Pc Tony Mills unload an almost medieval array of armour and defensive weaponry. Each officer has what is effectively a chainmail suit, encased in fabric, which will stop a dog’s teeth or a knife. The officers are also testing out a new piece of kit: an electrified riot shield with metal strips on the front that will deliver a 40,000-volt electric shock to a dog if it tries to attack.
‘Pit bulls have a very high tolerance of pain,’ Evans says. ‘They say that if a pit bull is fighting another dog you could hack off its leg and it would carry on fighting. Hence the injuries from a sustained dog attack will be far greater than from a gunshot wound from a low-velocity weapon.’
Rukhsana Khan, now 25, whose injuries were the spur for the Dangerous Dogs Act, still bears the scars of the attack in which she suffered more than 30 separate wounds. She still has nightmares about the attack and says she ‘freezes’ whenever she sees a dog. Like so many other victims, she believes the inadequacies of the Dangerous Dogs Act are being horribly exposed.
Critics say one of the major failings of the Act is that it targets one type of dog while allowing others that are equally dangerous to slip through the net because they are other breeds. Tellingly, in the same period that two children have been killed by fighting dogs, three others have been killed by dogs that are not covered by the Act, including three-month-old Jaden Mack, who was killed by a Staffordshire bull terrier and a Jack Russell at his grandmother’s home in Ystrad Mynach, south Wales, in February last year.
‘If a dog that is not covered by the Act bites a child in someone’s home, we don’t have any powers to intervene, even though that dog might be potentially more dangerous than a well-socialised pit bull,’ Evans says.
Taylor Leadbeater, aged two, almost lost her life in Eltham, south-east London, last month because of this very loophole. She was attacked by her family’s French bull mastiff, Trigger, which virtually tore off her lower jaw. The dog had tried to bite another member of her family two weeks earlier, prompting her grandmother to inquire about having the dog destroyed, but a vet told her it was not classed as a dangerous dog and so they could not intervene.
‘Breed legislation isn’t working,’ says RSPCA chief inspector Jan Eachus, a dangerous dog project officer assigned to the Status Dog Unit. ‘No human beings were killed by pit bulls before 1991, but since then we’ve had one death after another, mostly caused by cross-breeds. Dangerous dogs are not born, dangerous dogs are made, through abuse and neglect, and they can be any breed.’
In the US, an alternative approach adopted in some states has produced such dramatic results that the RSPCA will lobby the next Government to borrow heavily from it and overhaul the Dangerous Dogs Act. Pioneered in Multnomah County, Oregon, the US-style legislation, which covers dangerous dogs of all breeds, led to a 72 per cent reduction in the number of repeat attacks by dogs within a year of its being introduced.
‘We decided that the answer was to target behaviour, rather than breeds,’ Mike Oswald, the head of Multnomah County Animal Services, says. ‘Our system has three categories of offence, ranging from low-level behaviour, when a dog menaces someone without causing injury, to the most serious offences when someone is attacked. If someone allows their dog to commit a minor offence, we classify the dog as potentially dangerous and the owner has to pay an annual premium for a dog licence. We might also require the owner to muzzle the dog when it is off their property or build a secure enclosure for it, and obviously in the most serious cases we can destroy the animal.
‘We found that the public were much more willing to report incidents as a result, and owners were more willing to co-operate. We went from a position where 25 per cent of dogs would be involved in a second incident after we had been made aware of them, to just seven per cent causing any more problems.’ Even though Multnomah, which includes Portland, a city of 550,000 people, has an expanding dog population, there has been no increase in the number of injuries caused by dogs since the programme began in 1986.
Claire Robinson, the government relations manager for the RSPCA, is currently drawing up detailed proposals for a new law that will be a hybrid of the Oregon model and the current British law, giving the police better powers to intervene against any dog that menaces or intimidates people, while retaining the power to seize specific breeds.
‘Everyone recognises that there are ways the current laws can be improved,’ she says. ‘The key is to have a law that allows us to take action at a very early stage, regardless of the breed of dog, which might just be offering advice to an owner whose dog is barking at people over the fence, but which would encourage much more responsible ownership of all types of dog. If a dog has attacked another animal, a court could impose a control order, which would apply in private places as well as public, and we are also suggesting a new offence of using a dog as a weapon, in addition to the current powers.’
The RSPCA also advocates compulsory microchipping of all dogs, and a Government consultation currently being carried out into ways of improving the Dangerous Dogs Act has looked at the possibility of a register of dogs, run along similar lines to car registration, which would require owners to notify the authorities of changes of address and changes of ownership, as well as compulsory third party insurance. But the Government has already ruled out compulsory insurance, accepting that it would be ignored by the owners who present the biggest problem, while police believe they would have the same problem with a national register.
The RSPCA says it has had ‘positive’ feedback from all the major political parties to the idea of a new law combining the US-style system and current breed-specific legislation, and hopes it will be picked up quickly by whichever is in power after the election. For the 14 people who are hospitalised by dog attacks every day, those changes can’t come soon enough.
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