In early August, rumors swirled that the San Francisco Police Department might close down its Vicious and Dangerous Dog Unit (VDDU). Many of us in the San Francisco dog community were concerned.
What is the VDDU? Consider some possible scenarios: your dog has had an unfair complaint filed against her, or you or your dog have been hurt through the negligence of another dog owner, or you feel it necessary to make a complaint against a dog due to public safety concerns.
When such incidents happen in San Francisco, the VDDU has oversight. The Unit, built basically from scratch, has garnered so much respect over the years that it has been replicated by many other municipalities.
Before the VDDU became full-time, cases involving problem behavior by dogs and dog owners were randomly assigned to police or officers of Animal Care & Control, the City’s public animal agency. Investigations were spotty and inconsistent, and the dogs involved were almost always put to death.
The difference between then and now was made possible by two SFPD officers, Sgt. William Herndon and Officer John Denny. Since Sgt. Herndon and Officer Denny began adjudicating and building the Unit in 1992 and 1993, cases have been fully and fairly investigated. Now Sgt. Herndon has retired and some changes are in the works.
Prior to completing a case, Sgt. Herndon and Officer Denny looked at all of its aspects, including history of the dog and owner, specific circumstances of the incident, any special contributing factors, physical evidence, behavior assessments, etc. There was communication with all concerned parties. There was compliance follow-up.
Early intervention rulings, if deemed appropriate – such as an owner and dog being required to attend a training class – can provide dog owners with an opening to a new world. Like spokes going out from the center of a wheel, the benefits of such rulings for the dogs and people involved, and subsequently the community at large, have enormous potential.
Sometimes, however, the solutions are not so rosy. Ordering a dog to be muzzled in public at all times is one safety solution that may be deemed necessary. At times euthanasia is ordered. The officers must make life-and-death decisions, however difficult they may be for the involved parties.
Multi-layered and extremely complex, the VDDU is community policing at its best. When rumors started that the Unit might be abolished once Sgt. Herndon retired, the community went into action, sending letters and emails, and leaving phone messages for police decision-makers. Our concerns were heard.
The SFPD brass has made it clear that they understand the value of the Unit and that it will never be closed. In fact, additional constructive methods to expand and improve it are in the works. The public can still rely on the fairness of the process and can look forward to improved training, education, and communication regarding dog incidents in the community.
Officer Sherry Hicks now presides over the Unit, with Officer Denny remaining as investigating officer. Hicks, carefully chosen for this position, is committed to community outreach and education with both dog owners and non-dog people; training other police officers to work effectively with dog/owner situations; and early intervention that can prevent a major incident from occurring.
A16-year veteran of SFPD, Hicks has taught at its Academy. She is a self-described animal lover with two dogs and a “plethora of kitties.” Although not a novice regarding dog behavior, she has asked for permission to spend some of her work time gaining additional knowledge from local experts.
“Some have said I’ve gone to the dogs, but I’m proud and very happy and I can’t wait to get going,” Hicks said.
Both Hicks and Denny know the law, are familiar with the many dog issues in San Francisco, and have a teamwork approach with the three agencies involved in dog cases. Their willingness to look at each aspect of each case and to make very careful decisions about people and their animals, no matter how difficult, shows courage, compassion, and an innate sense of justice.
Some fine tuning remains to be done to finalize and codify the reorganization of the Unit. Many of us in the local community look forward to being of assistance.
Finally, a very fond farewell to Sgt. Bill Herndon, with heartfelt thanks for all his years of fine work from an unsung hero. Bravo!
You can reach the VDDU by calling John Denny at 415-554-9213 or Sherry Hicks at 415-554-9214.