Newark Police officers used their patrol vehicles to hit two allegedly aggressive dogs – and later fatally shot one of them – near the intersection of Ogletown and Marrows roads Friday evening.

The incident sparked criticism from witnesses and on social media, but police defended the actions as necessary to protect the public.

“The dogs were aggressive towards the officers by sprinting towards the officers, baring their teeth, growling and foaming at the mouth,” Lt. Andrew Rubin, a Newark Police Department spokesman, said in a prepared statement issued early Saturday morning.

The incident began just before 5 p.m. when police received at least two calls reporting a pit bull and a German shepherd running loose outside the Hudson State Service Center. The callers did not report aggressive behavior, but the dogs became aggressive almost immediately after officers arrived, Rubin said.

Three animal control officers from the Delaware Office of Animal Welfare and more than a dozen NPD officers spent 90 minutes trying to corral the dogs using treats and catch-poles, Rubin said, adding that the dogs ran through several properties, including 84 Lumber, the Porter Ford car dealership and a vacant lot owned by Martin Honda.

At one point, the officers drew their Tasers but were not able to get close enough to use them, according to Rubin. NPD’s animal control officer was not on duty, but other officers retrieved her equipment and attempted to use it.

“The officers were not successful in capturing the dogs, and the dogs continued to be aggressive and charge at officers and passersby,” Rubin said.

Ultimately, NPD officers used their patrol vehicles to strike the dogs, both of which were able to run away after being hit. Police later shot and killed the pit bull, while the German shepherd escaped.

Leigh Spencer, a University of Delaware student who previously worked at the SPCA, was driving through the area and pulled over when she saw the loose dogs. She said one of the dogs approached her and was not acting aggressively.

Spencer said an officer told her to leave and threatened her with arrest. She believes the officers were provoking the dogs and, with better training, could have restrained them with catch-poles.

“If anything, [the dogs] were acting out of fear,” she said. “I don’t think it needed to get to that point.”

Spencer called friend and SPCA colleague Ashton Cleveland, who came to the scene as well.

“The dogs were simply hanging out under a tree in a grassy area. However, as the police presence grew, they formed a line behind the dogs and continued to yell at them and eventually chase them around the building,” Cleveland said. “It quickly escalated to the cops and [animal control officers] chasing these scared dogs down the street and cornering the pit bull and shooting it multiple times.”

Spencer, Cleveland and a third witness went to NPD headquarters to file a complaint.

“I want to see the Newark Police Department actively training their officers on the correct way to handle and de-escalate situations involving animals,” Spencer said. “Even if the officers truly believed their lives or the lives of others were in danger by approximately 7 p.m. when they ran over both and fatally shot one of the dogs, what we witnessed at 5 p.m. proves that the dogs were, at least initially, not posing a threat. The end goal should be de-escalating and detaining. Not murder.”

Rubin said he is aware of the criticism but believes officers acted appropriately.

“Due to the existence of a busy highway (SR 273), open businesses on Ogletown Road, foot traffic in the area and residential neighborhoods nearby, a decision was made in conjunction with officers from the Office of Animal Welfare to use lethal force to capture these aggressive, apparently abandoned, dogs,” Rubin said. “Because the dogs were not contained in a specific area and would run from officers, Newark Police officers were forced to strike both dogs with their vehicles.”

He referenced the 2014 incident in which Emily Ruckle, the young daughter of a former city councilman, was attacked and critically injured by a pit bull in the family’s basement.

“That’s one of the other things that was on officers’ minds,” Rubin said.

Spencer posted two videos she took while officers were pursuing the dogs. One 52-second clip shows the dogs wandering past a police car while officers stood nearby, which Spencer argued is evidence the dogs were not aggressive. In another video, an apparent gunshot can be heard, but the dog is not visible in the frame.

All NPD cars are outfitted with dash cameras, but they are only activated when the lights and siren are turned on or if the car exceeds a certain speed. It’s unlikely the first officers to arrive had their cameras on for a loose dog call, Rubin said.

“At this point, I don’t have any video that shows the aggressiveness of the dogs,” he said. “But there might be some.”

Rubin said the incident will be investigated by the department’s force review committee, which is standard procedure whenever an officer draws his or her gun, fires a shot or otherwise uses force. NPD will also investigate any complaints filed by citizens.

The whereabouts of the dog that escaped are unknown and NPD is not actively looking for it, Rubin said Saturday. Neither dog had a collar or tags.

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