Study: Why Canadian police should have a dedicated animal cruelty unit

People view fighting animal cruelty as a public responsibility

Author: Kendra Coulter, Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence; Chair of the Labour Studies Department; Member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, Brock University

Who should enforce animal cruelty laws and how? This is an important question that deserves careful consideration. It has serious implications for vulnerable animals, the safety of front-line officers, victims of domestic violence and public safety overall.

Finding the best possible answer to this question has become urgent in my home province of Ontario. For a century, animal cruelty investigations have been offloaded to charities. Only crimes against animals have been treated this way.

But that’s about to change. The OSPCA has announced it will end its law enforcement work. The era of charity-based animal cruelty enforcement in Ontario is over.

In January, I launched a survey open to all adult residents in Ontario in order to take the pulse of the public at this critical time. More than 20,000 people completed the survey, a significant number and a powerful comment on the level of public interest.

The findings, along with detailed but succinct analysis and other key data, are assembled in the report A More Humane and Safer Ontario: The Future of Animal Cruelty Investigations. It is freely available at stopanimalcruelty.ca.

The results are clear. People view fighting animal cruelty as a public responsibility. They want crimes against animals to be taken more seriously by our government, law enforcers, Crown attorneys and judges.

Public support

There are high to very high levels of public support for most public enforcement options. Involvement of provincial police, local police, specialized anti-cruelty units and partnerships between police and animal welfare charities (which could provide support, animal care, etc.) are particularly popular options.

There is support for downloading responsibility onto municipalities and local bylaw agents. Survey participants see potential for pertinent government ministries to undertake certain kinds of investigations (such as for wild animals). There is also support for the creation of a new public agency that focuses on animal cruelty.

In other words, people back publicly funded and delivered anti-cruelty enforcement. And this is a cross-partisan issue. Public safety is one of the most fundamental purposes of government, and investing in it is not controversial.

Closer examination and assessment reveal the potential benefits and drawbacks of each of these approaches. Key strengths and weaknesses for all the options are provided in the report.

Smart public policy, particularly when it has such a significant effect on the lives and safety of people and animals, is rooted in evidence and nuanced analysis.

This is why my research team and I have been studying different anti-cruelty approaches and jurisdictions carefully. We examine financial and statistical data, laws, policies and regional differences. We listen to those directly involved and undertake field work to see distinct models in action.

We have consulted with many kinds of front-line officers, enforcement leaders, policy-makers, animal caretakers, veterinarians, veterinary forensics specialists, lawyers, social workers, law enforcement trainers and other researchers. The report and my analysis build from all of this methodical work.

There is no one-size-fits-all model. But when considering the particulars of Ontario, some options are more promising and feasible than others. Animal cruelty investigation is multi-faceted, risky and challenging work that should be undertaken by experts.

They are called investigations for a reason. Officers don’t fully know what they are walking into or will discover.

Gateway crimes

Often, those discoveries include the abuse of animals, women and children. Law enforcement experts are increasingly recognizing that animal cruelty is not only illegal, it is also an indicator and a gateway crime.

So which of Ontario’s public organizations are best prepared to most effectively integrate humane law enforcement, protect animals and people and properly equip, train and support officers — and to do so soon?

There are clear reasons for general police forces — the experts in law enforcement — to respond first to animal cruelty complaints. These include investigator safety and the importance of the initial investigation for vulnerable animals and people, and the correct identification of evidence. A specialized provincial animal crimes unit could be even more effective.

Why? Dedicated officers would be experts. They would be thoroughly trained and equipped with essential knowledge about law enforcement protocols, different kinds of animals and the demands of cruelty investigations specifically.

The officers in this unit could enlist many tools, including issuing tickets for minor to modest infractions or more serious penalties when warranted. For situations where education or the locating of resources is more appropriate, these officers would have the necessary knowledge and networks.

Such a unit could be comprised of special constables who are not part of the main policing force but who can draw from invaluable provincial policing resources, knowledge and infrastructure.

Anti-cruelty teams

This approach would maximize resources and efficiency. And if a specialized provincial anti-cruelty team was assigned as the first responder for animal cases, this would also lessen the demands on the main police forces.

These officers could work with animal welfare organizations for animal care, transportation and support, as well as veterinary forensics experts who are crucially important for comprehensive investigations and prosecutions. This unit could collaborate with the pertinent provincial ministries where warranted, and involve social service agencies, nonprofits and health-care providers when needed.

When considering animals, vulnerable people and officer safety, a well-trained and resourced provincial anti-cruelty force is a particularly compelling enforcement approach. This route would make Ontario a leader in anti-cruelty enforcement and send a strong message that crimes against animals are taken seriously.

This is a truly historic opportunity to finally build an effective, accountable, well co-ordinated and properly resourced model for animal cruelty. The animals and people of Ontario deserve nothing less.

READ MORE: Animals seized from North Okanagan property

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