Why addressing animal cruelty crimes matters

Research and first-hand experiences show that animal cruelty crimes occur alongside child abuse, domestic violence and gang activity


By John Thompson

I have been in law enforcement for nearly 50 years, starting out as a volunteer firefighter and EMT, and later serving as a military police officer, a canine handler and intelligence officer in the U.S. Army; a police chief in Mt. Rainier, Maryland; and assistant sheriff for Prince Georges County. I then spent 16 years at the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA). There were a lot of things I had to think about on the job, but animal cruelty wasn’t one of them. Policing has changed a lot since I began my career, and my thinking has changed about animal abuse and its connection to the goal of good police work, which is to protect our communities.                  

Getting there involved a transformative lightbulb moment. While in law school, my daughter worked as an intern at the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and she reviewed the research on the link between animal abuse and other crimes. Her findings opened my eyes and made me ask, “How have I missed this?” About the same time, a small dog named Mr. Po came into my family’s life. Although I had been a canine officer and around dogs and other animals all my life, nothing prepared me for the deep and lasting influence Mr. Po would have on me. My world changed and as it did, I realized the many ways in which paying attention to animal cruelty could provide law enforcement with more and better tools for keeping communities safe. Let me explain.

In this photo, Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) Animal Safe Haven Unit (MASH) facility is shown. (Rick Scuteri/AP Images for PetSmart Charities)
In this photo, Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) Animal Safe Haven Unit (MASH) facility is shown. (Rick Scuteri/AP Images for PetSmart Charities)

Animal cruelty often occurs alongside other offenses

There is quite a large body of research – as well as first-hand experiences from officers in the field – showing that animal cruelty crimes occur alongside other serious offenses, such as child abuse, domestic violence, interpersonal violence, gang activity and illegal drug dealing. If you pay attention to animal cruelty, you may be able to identify – or even avert – other crimes more quickly. If there are neglected dogs on a property, there might be an animal fighting ring, children exposed to violence, or other criminal acts. When you arrive at a domestic violence call, look to see if there are animals in the household. Have they been injured? If, as often happens, the victim of domestic violence is hesitant to press charges, perhaps an alleged offender could be charged with animal cruelty. Paying attention to animal cruelty not only protects animals, but the families and communities in which they live.

Animal cruelty crime added to NIBRS

I am not the only law enforcement professional to think this way. In September 2016 the FBI added animal cruelty crime incidents to Group A of the National Incident Based Reporting System. The National Sheriffs’ Association, as well as the Animal Welfare Institute, submitted proposals to the Advisory Policy Board to request this addition.

In July 2018, the Joint Counterterrorism Assessment Team (JCAT) of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement in its First Responder’s Toolkit advising law enforcement that animal cruelty could be a warning behavior for terrorism or other acts of premeditated violence against humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently agreed animal cruelty should be a data element in its National Violent Death Reporting System. A search of that database reveals a correlation between animal abuse and some violent deaths.

Resources and training on animal cruelty recognition

The National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) has taken this matter to heart, publishing special issues of its magazine “Sheriff & Deputy” on the link between animal cruelty and other crimes; the most recent edition can be downloaded here. Current NSA President John Layton created an Animal Cruelty and Abuse Committee. NSA also houses the National Law Enforcement Center on Animal Abuse (NLECAA), which has a number of practical resources for law enforcement. Two roll call videos are available, “Cruelty and Neglect” and “Dog Fighting,” with plans for additional videos in the future. NLECAA has also collaborated with the Justice Clearinghouse to provide free webinars on topics related to law enforcement and animal cruelty.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) provides free training and support to law enforcement agencies in handling animal abuse cases. To request a training, contact Ashley Mauceri. Similarly, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys conducts an annual training conference and occasional webinars on enforcing animal cruelty laws and investigating animal cruelty crimes.

Now that animal cruelty incidents are part of NIBRS, we need to ensure we collect reliable data on animal cruelty crimes. If your agency participates in NIBRS – the FBI has a goal of 100% national participation by 2020 – be sure your department is reporting animal abuse incidents. Incidents are categorized as neglect, intentional cruelty, animal fighting and animal sexual assault. This information will enable effective targeting of resources, determine where interventions are needed or are working, and track how animal cruelty is related to other crimes.

As executive director of the National Animal Care & Control Association (NACA), one of my goals is to create bridges between law enforcement agencies and those animal service agencies not located within law enforcement. Animal control officers often are the first responders on an animal cruelty call. They also provide assistance when animals need to be removed from a situation. The NACA website has more information on the role animal control officers play in the law enforcement community.

Since reading that law school paper that changed my life, I have committed myself to urging law enforcement to pay attention to animal cruelty crimes and to offer them resources for doing that. Vigorous enforcement of animal cruelty laws not only can prevent or end animal suffering, but it can also protect our families and communities.


About the author
John Thompson is executive director of the National Animal Care and Control Association (NACA) and former deputy executive director and COO of the National Sheriffs’ Association. Contact him at JThompson@nacanet.org.

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