Chris Herndon on Plan to Make Pit Bulls Legal in Denver Again

In 1989, following a pair of attacks resulting in death and serious injury, Denver City Council prohibited three breeds of dogs commonly referred to as pit bulls — and in the three decades since then, thousands of animals have been euthanized under its provisions.

Now, Denver City Council member Chris Herndon is on the cusp of introducing a measure that would change this equation. But it's an indication of how politically fraught the subject of pit bulls remains that Herndon shies away from acknowledging that his proposal would essentially repeal the ban, even though the draft document strikes through nearly every line of the current regulations related to American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers or Staffordshire Bull Terriers in Denver.

"There are numerous studies that say breed-specific legislation is ineffective," Herndon stresses. "I would consider that as common knowledge at this point. And since 2011, this is something I would have liked to approach, but I didn't have the support of previous councils. So I asked, 'Is there a middle ground I can take, recognizing this is ineffective, but also recognizing there are people who may still have concerns? What is something that might be a compromise?'"

As an answer, Herndon has crafted what he describes as a "breed-restrictive license. If you have somebody who should have one of these breeds, and if this bill should pass, they would go to Denver Animal Protection [aka the Denver Animal Shelter] and get a license. They'll just have to give the name of the owner and the address where the dog will reside, two emergency contacts, a description of the pit bull and a recent photograph, proof that the dog is microchipped and current on vaccinations, and pay an annual fee. And if 36 months passes and the dog doesn't have any violations of Denver animal ordinances, the dog can transition to the regular license that any Goldendoodle can have now."

click to enlarge Chris Herndon represents District 8 on Denver City Council. - @CHRISJHERNDON
Chris Herndon represents District 8 on Denver City Council.
There are a few other restrictions. For instance, an owner can't keep more than two pit bulls at any time and is required to notify authorities within eight hours if the pit bull has escaped or attacked a person or another animal, or within 24 hours if the dog dies or the owner moves. Moreover, one section notes, "Animal protection officers shall be permitted access at reasonable times and in a reasonable manner to inspect the pit bull and/or the premises where the pit bull is located for sanitary and health conditions."

In essence, then, pit bulls would be on probation, but with a path toward first-class canine citizenship — which they haven't enjoyed in the Mile High City for a long time.

In 2009, Westword published writer Jared Jacang Maher's definitive history of the Denver pit bull ban on its twentieth anniversary. He traced the breed's criminal status to May 8, 1989, "when Wilbur Billingsley headed to the store to pick up some items for his wife. He'd only gotten as far as the alley behind his home in Denver's San Rafael neighborhood when a dog attacked him. Billingsley, a 58-year-old evangelical pastor, fell to the ground, and the dog started ripping into his legs." The pastor was bitten more than seventy times and suffered two broken legs and a shattered right kneecap in the assault, by a five-year-old pit bull named Tate.

No surprise that this incident received a tremendous amount of attention from the press, which reported about it in the context of incidents both local (in October 1986, a three-year-old Denver boy was killed by a pit bull after he wandered onto a neighbor's property) and national (a seven-year-old Miami girl was mauled by a pit bull in February 1989). As a result, Denver City Council members Ramona Martinez and Mary DeGroot began pushing a proposition that would target the aforementioned trio of breeds, as well as "any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of the above breeds."

click to enlarge A photo of a pit bull euthanized under Denver's pit bull ban that was leaked to Westword in 2009. - SPECIAL TO WESTWORD
A photo of a pit bull euthanized under Denver's pit bull ban that was leaked to Westword in 2009.
Special to Westword
The resulting hearings were extremely contentious; hundreds of Denver residents shared their views with tremendous passion. (And one leaked photos of pit bulls that had been euthanized in Denver to us.)  But the measure passed and was signed by then-mayor Federico Peña in August 1989. An organization called Colorado Dog Fanciers countered by filing a lawsuit against the city. In 1992, however, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that supported Denver's right to pass the law.

At least six Colorado cities currently ban pit bulls. Aurora, Commerce City, Fort Lupton, La Junta and Louisville have edicts similar to Denver's — and an Aurora ballot measure to change that city's ban was crushed in 2014. But in May 2018, Castle Rock ended its pit bull prohibition, and the movement against breed-specific legislation continues to build steam thanks to groups such as Replace Denver BSL, which backs Herndon's efforts, as do the Denver Dumb Friends League and the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association.

Such support hasn't made Herndon over-confident, and he's marshaled numerous arguments for why his ordinance makes sense. For one thing, it calls for data to be collected on all licensed pit bulls, and he hopes the resulting stats will confirm that these specific breeds don't deserve their gnarly reputation. Furthermore, he notes, "We know these breeds are in our community — and because they're banned, there's a higher possibility that the owner won't seek out professional guidance or even proper pet care. And right now, we don't know where these dogs are. If the ordinance passes, we will, and that will make our community safer."

Persuading Denver dwellers that he's right may be a challenge, given the glee with which broadcast media, in particular, reports negative stories about pit bulls. "My hope is that this is going to be a fact-based conversation," he says.

In recent weeks, Herndon has floated his ideas to other members of the council, which added five new faces last June. "All my colleagues are aware of what I wanted to do with this," he confirms. "Some are supportive, some are not. But I'm hopeful as we go through the process, the majority of the council will be supportive."

The proposal's formal debut will be at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, January 22, when Herndon will present his plan to the Safety, Housing, Education & Homelessness committee. Click to read the provisional breed-restricted licenses for owners of pit bulls draft ordinance.