Commerce City Police dog shooting: Owner devastated, confused by pit bull label

Update: When Gary Branson planned a trip out of town over Thanksgiving, his cousin offered to watch his beloved dog, Chloe, until his return. In the interim, though, tragedy struck: Chloe slipped out of the house and was killed by a Commerce City police officer in an incident caught on video. Branson has now stepped forward to share his outrage over the situation -- an emotion echoed by his attorney, who's prepared to sue the city over the incident.

As we've reported in our previous coverage, on view below in its entirety, Chloe slipped out of the garage where she was being kept. A neighbor, Kenny Collins, saw her running loose and called the authorities -- and upon the arrival of officers, he recorded what happened next on a cell-phone camera. As captured in raw footage on page two of this update, Chloe is tased by a policeman and snared on a catch pole by a community service officer. But the policeman felt Chloe remained out of control and fired his weapon five times, shooting and killing her.

In later statements, the Commerce City Police Department maintained that this action was taken with an eye toward maintaining public safety, and stressed that those responding to the scene had undergone special training prompted by a previous dog-shooting incident in 2010.

But plenty of folks who've seen the video feel the shooting was unjustified and are sharing their feelings on the Justice For Chloe Facebook page (2,196 likes and counting) and a Justice for Chloe petition that has collected more than 4,100 signatures at this writing.

In the meantime, Chloe continues to be referred to as a pit bull in much of the case's coverage, prompted by the initial CCPD release, which dubbed her as an "unknown aggressive pit bull." The Animal Law Center's Jennifer Edwards, the attorney representing Branson, regards this as an example of "puppy profiling" -- assuming that by calling the dog a pit bull, people conditioned to think of the breed as vicious will naturally assume the shooting was justified.

As for Branson, he's puzzled by the pit bull claims. "She's a chocolate lab," he says, slipping unconsciously into the present tense.

Continue for more of our interview with Chloe's owner. Chloe came into Branson's life four years ago as a therapy pet. He'd just gone through extensive heart surgery, and she helped inspire him to walk and exercise in ways that aided his healing process. "She was my constant companion pretty much 24/7," he says. "And there's never been any incidents where she was violent or aggressive.

"She was as gentle as a lamb, to be honest with you," he continues. "She loved kids. She loved running around with them, playing with them. She'd let them ride on her like a horse, bounce on her, pull her ears, and she never once did anything to harm a child -- or an adult. She was just a loving, loving animal who loved attention. It didn't matter from who."

Given this description, the call he received about Chloe's shooting was an even greater shock than it would have been under other circumstances. "My cousin was devastated by what happened," he says. "She was in hysterics. I actually had to calm her down so she could tell me what happened."

Edwards points out that Chloe can be seen sitting calmly during extended portions of the video, proving, in her mind, that the officers' actions were excessive and unnecessary. But Branson can't comment on the footage. He doesn't feel emotionally ready to see the clip yet.

When asked what actions he believes Commerce City should take in the case, Branson is at a loss for words, prompting Edwards to note, "He's still in shock, literally. He's sitting in my office in shock."

In regard to a potential Commerce City response, she adds, "They had the opportunity to do the right thing -- to own their mistake, to apologize for that mistake. And they didn't. So now I think they need to change their ways within that police department. Obviously, there's something wrong in the culture there. In three months, we've gone to trial on one dog getting shot, and now we have another one needlessly murdered. Something has to change."

Here's the complete video.

Continue to read our previous coverage about the shooting of Chloe. Update, 9:09 a.m. November 30: Yesterday, we reported that Animal Law Center attorney Jennifer Edwards' services had been retained in the case of Chloe, a dog shot and killed by a Commerce City police officer during an incident caught on video; get details in our previous coverage below. Edwards provides additional details about her clients, the facts of the case and the strong possibility that she'll be filing suit against Commerce City, a community she sued over a 2010 dog shooting.

The story revolves around Chloe, who's widely reported to have been a pit bull -- a designation that frosts Edwards. She describes Chloe as a "mixed-breed dog," and accuses Commerce City of engaging in "puppy profiling" by calling her a pit bull, presumably because the average person will automatically assume she was vicious because of her breed.

As we've reported, Chloe was being temporarily kept at a house in Commerce City, which instituted a pit bull ban several years ago, when she snuck out of the garage. A neighbor, Kenny Collins, called the authorities and recorded law enforcers' actions on a cell-phone camera. The video he shot shows Chloe being tased by a policeman and snared on a catch pole by a community service officer -- the equivalent of animal control in Commerce City. But the policeman felt Chloe remained out of control and fired his weapon multiple times, shooting and killing her.

In a release, the Commerce City Police Department stresses that the decision to shoot the dog was made in order to protect the public. But Edwards questions this claim.

"If you watch the video from beginning to end -- the longer version we have -- you see the officers standing around with complete and total disregard to an animal that's supposed to be so vicious," she says. "Chloe is just sitting in a garage not paying any attention to them -- certainly not paying the sort of attention that would justify shooting off five rounds where there are witnesses nearby and letting stray bullets fly around."

No one other than Chloe was injured by the gunshots. However, it appears that one bullet ricocheted and struck the community service officer's vehicle. And Edwards says a Fox31 crew member found another shell at the scene, suggesting that officers didn't successfully account for all of them.

In addition, Edwards says, a dog named Jack was also in the garage at the time of the shooting, inside a wire kennel. But when the gunfire sounded, she goes on, "Jack broke out of the kennel and took off, and he was left to run the neighborhood. They did nothing to secure Jack and put him back in the residence -- a dog that was clearly running scared and might have reacted negatively out of fear."

She sees this lack of action as another example of profiling -- assuming that Jack wouldn't hurt anyone, because he isn't a pit bull.

Still, Edwards sees the other elements of the video as being even more damning. "In the minutes before the shooting, we see the officers standing with their backs to the dog, which was less than ten feet away. They show no concern about safety that would rise to the level of shooting a dog -- and Chloe is just sitting there, paying no attention to them. If this dog was such an imminent threat and so vicious, you'd think you wouldn't be able to take your eye off her, but the officers are there for several minutes -- and during that time, she doesn't do anything that would warrant what ultimately happened to her."

While Edwards declines to name her clients at this point, she notes that they include Chloe's actual owner, who was out of town on vacation when the shooting occurred ("He's still trying to deal with this horrific tragedy," she says), and the family members watching the dog in his absence. The latter face a series of allegations involving having a vicious or dangerous dog, allowing a dog to run at large, lacking a dog license and a rabies vaccination, and allegedly violating the aforementioned pit bull ordinance.

Each of these counts is "highly defensible," Edwards says, and she's hoping Commerce City "does the right thing" and drops them. Yet she's also keeping her options open about suing over the incident, in part because she believes the community's police force has a culture of mishandling such situations that needs to be addressed. While an officer she sued after killing a dog in 2010 was found to have acted within the parameters of her duty in an August trial (details below), she continues to maintain that officers didn't take subsequent dog training seriously -- an allegation denied by a Commerce City police spokesman in an interview also included in previous coverage found here.

"This is a real problem with Commerce City," Edwards allows. "They had this mandatory training as a result of the last lawsuit we filed, but they joked about it in the training, in the depositions. We have it on record; they thought it was a joke. And now, it has manifested itself in the murder of a dog. And that was someone's family pet."

Continue for our previous coverage on the shooting of Chloe, including photos and videos. Update, 8:08 a.m. November 29: Earlier this week, we told you about the shooting of Chloe, a pit bull mix, by a Commerce City police officer; look below to see our previous coverage. Now, the Animal Law Center's Jennifer Edwards has reportedly taken the case and plans a lawsuit against Commerce City -- the very community she unsuccessfully took to court over a similar incident mere months ago. Meanwhile, a police department rep decries media coverage of the case.

Chloe was being temporarily kept at a Commerce City house (despite the town's pit bull ban) when she snuck out of the garage. A neighbor, Kenny Collins, called the authorities and recorded law enforcers' actions on a cell-phone camera. The video he shot shows Chloe being tased by a policeman and snared on a catch pole by a community service officer -- the equivalent of animal control in Commerce City. But the policeman felt Chloe remained out of control and fired his weapon multiple times, shooting and killing her.

One of the bullets ricocheted out of the garage, where the incident took place, and appears to have struck the community service officer's vehicle. However, no one other than Chloe was hurt.

In a release, the Commerce City Police Department portrayed the shooting as necessary in order to protect members of the community. The CCPD also noted that following an officer's shooting and killing of another dog in 2010, all members of the department, including those who took part in the recent incident, went through training to understand the best way to handle situations involving dogs. The release added that a jury "determined the officers' actions were justified" in the 2010 matter.

That's true: According to Edwards, the case was resolved in August, with the jury determining that the officer acted reasonably in fulfilling her duties. But Edwards remains troubled by contradictions in testimony. The officer said she was under attack by three dogs, the attorney notes, and she was forced to shoot and kill the one in the lead in order to defend herself. Yet Edwards says she had two witnesses who saw only one dog (Zoey, described as being of mixed breed) rather than three. Moreover, those witnesses believed Zoey was quite a distance from the officer -- claims that might have been proven by an autopsy had the dog not already been cremated.

Despite hearing this testimony, the jurors ruled in the officer's favor. But the latest shooting suggests to Edwards that the Commerce City department has what she terms "an endemic problem" when it comes to the way it deals with dog-related situations. She also asserts that after the 2010 shooting, the CCPD didn't take the training it received seriously -- "and that manifested itself in what happened to Chloe."

Detective Christian Rasmussen, spokesman for the CCPD, rejects that claim. "I can assure you the entire department took the training seriously," he says. "That's why we went through it. We wouldn't go through training like that if we didn't think it would be beneficial, or if we didn't take it seriously."

Rasmussen declined to go into details about the case, which has now been handed over to the Adams County District Attorney's Office for investigation -- and he didn't know if Chloe has been cremated. But he was unhappy with the media's reporting about the shooting.

"I think it started out extremely poorly -- it was extremely one-sided and wasn't portrayed accurately or fairly," he says. "There were even comments put out in the media about the community service officer's reaction and her mental state" -- a reference to reports that she was distraught after Chloe was killed. "No one spoke to her, and without getting her comments on something like that, well, I just think that's poor journalism. I think it's unprofessional to report on things like this without getting as many sides of the story as possible."

When we get more details about the proposed lawsuit against Commerce City, we'll update this post.

Continue to read our previous coverage about the dog shooting incident, including videos. Original post, 6:13 a.m. November 27: Few incidents prompt more passion among media consumers than the death of an animal -- so it's no surprise that a video showing a Commerce City police officer shooting a pit bull named Chloe (see it below) has stirred controversy. Nonetheless, the cops say they did nothing wrong -- and point to lessons learned from a previous dog shooting that the media portrayed "poorly."

The new video, shared by outlets such as CBS4 and Fox31, was captured by Kenny Collins, who saw a pit bull running loose in his Commerce City neighborhood, near a home at 9695 Nucla Street. Turns out the residents were caring for Chloe on behalf of a family member.

What happened next? According to a Commerce City Police Department release, officers who responded to the scene attempted to contact the homeowner for twenty minutes without success before determining that the dog needed to be captured and taken to an animal shelter. The dog reacted aggressively, the police emphasize, and an attempt to subdue it with a Taser was unsuccessful.

At that point, an animal control officer managed to snare the dog with an instrument called a "catch pole," but could not control her due to "the dog's size and aggressive behavior," the release continues. And so, "for the safety of the community and the officers on scene," one of the cops "fired his weapon multiple times to put down the dog and ensure the safety of everyone."

Little did the officer realize that Collins recorded the entire exchange on a cell phone camera -- and while the basic outlines of the police account are confirmed by the clip, the footage is ambiguous enough for critics to argue that shooting and killing a dog already snagged on a catch pole was excessive and unnecessary.

Witnessing this incident was clearly emotional for Collins, as you can see in the report below.

The story is complicated by its location. After all, Commerce City has earned a reputation, fairly or unfairly, when it comes to animal control and pit bulls.

Continue to read more about the shooting of Chloe the pit bull, as well as to see two videos. The community launched an effort to ban the breed in 2005 -- and since the measure was subsequently passed, Chloe's presence within the town limits officially violated the regulation.

And that's not to mention a previous, and heavily publicized, dog shooting by a Commerce City police officer -- one that took place in 2010 and spurred a lawsuit.

Here's a description of the shooting courtesy of Wheat Ridge's Animal Law Center, which filed the suit:

On February 3, 2010, Officer [Suzanne] Barber arrived at the Agazio family home to investigate an accidental 911 call made by the Plaintiff, Frank Agazio. Officer Barber entered the fenced yard with her gun drawn, according to a witness. Zoey, a 30 pound mixed breed dog with no history of aggressive or vicious behavior, began barking and approached Officer Barber. When Zoey was approximately 20 feet away from Barber, the officer shot and killed the animal. Immediately upon hearing the shot, Frank Agazio stepped outside of the home to investigate. Officer Barber then pointed her weapon at Agazio and ordered him to retreat.
The incident, and the suit, got plenty of attention; see a 9News video from 2010 below. But the aforementioned Commerce City release notes that even though the incident was "portrayed poorly by the media," a jury "later determined the officers' actions were justified."

Nonetheless, the release goes on, the incident spurred a policy change. Now, all members of the Commerce City Police Department, including the officers who responded to the 911 call about Chloe, attend "mandatory training on dog encounters," including "how to approach dogs and how to read their behavior."

Despite such preparation, the video about the latest matter guarantees the story will linger, and prompt debate.

Look below to see a report about the shooting of Chloe, followed by a 2010 report about the previous incident.

More from our News archive: "Photos: Dre, pit bull threatened with death, returns home after plea deal."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts