BURGAW — It’s been a tough year for 63-year-old veteran Bruce Benson.
In April he was laid off from his management job at a calibration lab due to the Covid-19 pandemic, then informed he wouldn’t be coming back to work. In May one of his best friends, a Vietnam veteran, fell and broke his back. He said he spent several months driving back and forth to Wake Forest Baptist Hospital, helping him and his wife adjust to his paralysis from the waist down.
But the dagger came on a stormy Saturday morning in mid-August, when deputies with the Pender County Sheriff’s Office pulled onto his driveway in response to a welfare call that was made because Benson hadn’t attended a scheduled church event earlier that morning. One of the responding deputies attended the same church and knew Benson, according to the PCSO.
When Benson opened the door to talk to the deputies, Benson’s dog — a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois and Dutch Shepard mix named “Astro” — ran out of the front door and chased two other deputies.
One climbed into the bed of Benson’s pickup truck, while the other — a rookie in his first week on the job — shot Astro at close range and killed the dog, according to both Benson and Sheriff Alan Cutler.
Ten days after the incident, Cutler issued a press release stating an investigation “revealed that the breed of dog . . . is a breed that by nature is very protective of his home turf and protective of his owner.”
“Astro could appear aggressive,” Benson told Port City Daily on Saturday morning. “He would tear out of the house barking his head off. People who had any sense would just stop and stand still, and he’d sniff all around them and go about his business.”
Sheriff Cutler said in the release the dog barked and growled as one of the officers explained to Benson why they were on his property. Then the dog turned aggressive toward two deputies. After a deputy jumped into Benson’s truck, the dog continued to advance toward the other deputy “while growling and showing his teeth.”
“I want to see the body cam and dash cam to bring out publicly that Sheriff Cutler lied in his press releases about Astro’s behavior,” Benson said.
Benson filed a federal lawsuit against Sheriff Cutler and the PCSO on Feb. 4, seeking compensation for unlawful loss of property, economic and emotional damage, and deprivation of rights bestowed by the 4th and 14th Amendments. It argues that Astro was used as an emotional support animal, and Benson “suffered severe emotional distress when he was forced to witness his companion shot to death in his front yard.
“Plaintiff subsequently lost sleep, abused alcohol, and sought medical treatment from a licensed physician following the death of his dog and was diagnosed with severe and debilitating depression, post-traumatic stress, and experienced weight loss due to a loss of appetite as a result,” according to court documents.
His attorney, Brandon Pettijohn of Wilmington, said he was told by a former PCSO deputy that the law enforcement agency “doesn’t seem to have the sort of training” to teach deputies how to deal with signs of dog aggression. The training is offered by the U.S. Post Office to its couriers and many utility companies to its technicians.
He said the incident points to a much larger problem in law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. According to a Department of Justice official’s estimate in 2012, the number of dogs killed by officers could be as high as 10,000 a year.
“We haven’t gotten into the weeds of the case, but what we understand from people who were at the scene and the former deputy who informed me of this, is that the deputy who shot the animal was about a week on the job, from what I understand,” Pettijohn said. “He had been issued a side arm, a service pistol, but he hadn’t gone through any of that department’s specific trainings for non-lethal or less-than-lethal [weapons].”
The sheriff’s office confirmed in September the deputy was a new hire.
Sheriff Cutler stated in his August 20 press release that his deputies “complete annual service training in compliance with standards set by the NC Sheriff’s Training and Standards Commission.” He also said the deputy’s reaction was justifiable.
According to Pettijohn, the rookie deputy was not issued a baton, mace, OC spray, or taser.
“The issue is: Were any of those feasible? Could any of those have been used? And the answer is: We’ll never know because he wasn’t even able to do that,” Pettijohn said. “And there’s a problem with giving someone a gun and saying, ‘Look, you might be put into a situation where less-than-lethal is more appropriate, but you don’t even have that option, so you’re going to have to go straight to lethal.’ And that’s a problem.”
In a year when police use of excessive force has been put under the national spotlight due to numerous killings of unarmed Black people — and the strong use of force to quash ensuing protests that ricocheted across the country over the summer — he said dogs killed by officers have largely escaped the public eye.
Sheriff Cutler did not respond to a request for comment in regard to the lawsuit.
The county’s attorney, Trey Thurman, issued a response provided to “Members of the Fourth Estate” on Feb. 10, wherein Cutler reiterated what happened. He said Astro “continued to bark and growl while the initial deputy explained why they were there,” before running out of the house aggressively heading toward two deputies.
When asked to respond to Cutler’s description of the incident, Pettijohn was blunt in his reply: “Yeah, he doubled down. But the facts of the case are simple . . . What Sheriff Cutler said — that the dog was growling and showing aggression — is simply not true.”
According to the attorney, Astro ran by two deputies on the front porch before instinctively and playfully chasing the other two deputies who were running away from him. Furthermore, Astro had never bitten anyone to his knowledge, which Benson has also claimed.
“And if [the deputies] had the proper training, and they could have been able to interpret the signs of whether the dog was being aggressive or not, the situation could have turned out a whole lot differently,” Pettijohn said. “In a situation where they were supposed to be helping, they hurt.”
He said both his firm and Benson are supporters of law enforcement, but he believes there must be some level of accountability for PCSO “because it could be a human next time.”
Rather than place blame on the rookie deputy, who Benson previously said was “afraid of dogs” — something the PCSO disputes — he believed the department “has a systematic problem” when it comes to training for this type of incident.
Captain James Rowell, spokesperson of the department, disagreed with that notion.
“In my opinion, of what I’ve seen of the case, [the deputy] showed great restraint in waiting until the last minute before he did what he had to do to keep from getting injured,” Rowell told Port City Daily in early September. “He was put in a bad situation. He hates it as much as anybody does.”
Pettijohn said the department needs to show a more common-sense approach and train deputies how to understand dog behavior.
“If you’re going to be around water, learn how to swim,” he said. “If you’re going to be around dogs, learn how to deal with them.”
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