EXCLUSIVE: ASPCA employees concerned NYPD takeover of abuse cases puts animals at risk

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A recent announcement by the ASPCA that it’s going to soon begin using NYPD officers to respond to animal abuse complaints has some people who work for the animal protection organization concerned about the welfare of New York City animals.  The new development also has some independent animal protection advocates wondering how great a priority the prevention of animal cruelty will be to a law enforcement force whose primary mission is to protect people.

“I think this is going to hurt the entire situation,” said Phyllis Taiano to PIX11 News.  She’s the founder and director of the animal rescue and spay/neuter organization Four Paws Sake NYC.  “There’s not enough help out there now,” she said, regarding her concern that the NYPD may be so thoroughly tasked with fighting crimes against humans that the department may be compromised in its new task of fighting animal abuse.

NYPD officers will start handling animal abuse calls next month in the Bronx, and by the first of the year, they’ll handle cases citywide.  It’s a situation that sounds like having a large, well-trained force pursuing animal abusers, but people with deep experience protecting animals are not yet convinced.

“We don’t know,” said Taiano, “are the police officers going to be experienced handling animals?  Are they going to go around shooting dogs?”

She was referring to an incident a year ago, in which an NYPD cop shot at a dog that ran at him while it stood by its owner, who had passed out.   Video recorded by a passerby that captured the incident went viral, and the shooting sparked widespread reaction, much of it anti-NYPD, even though the dog, named Star, unpredictably lunged at the officer, and survived.

“We just pray that the NYPD steps up, and hopefully they train their police officers,” said Taiano.

Her concern was echoed by at least one other animal protection advocate, Regina Massaro, the director of the Spay Neuter Intervention Project, or SNIP of New York.  She told PIX11 News by phone that she was writing a letter to the NYPD calling for thorough training for its officers in the handling of animal abuse cases.

That action stems from a concern that the newly announced change may not compensate for the deep experience of the law enforcement unit that the ASPCA already has, and which it is cutting back significantly in the months ahead.

Since 1866, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has had its own armed police force, called Humane Law Enforcement, or HLE.   As recently as this decade, the New York ASPCA’s HLE force has had more than two dozen officers.  It’s now been cut down to 17, and after the first of the year, when the NYPD takes over enforcement almost completely, there will only be four so-called animal cops left, according to their union.

It also told PIX11, and other sources close to the new NYPD/ASPCA partnership confirm that the organization has more than 400 uninvestigated cases of animal abuse citywide.

The ASPCA said, in a written statement, that the new arrangement will handle that caseload backup more effectively.  “With tens of thousands of NYPD officers across 77 precincts, the number of cases this represents will be nominal and will be incorporated into the everyday law enforcement work.”

However, the union representing current ASPCA HLE officers told PIX11 News that training documents it had obtained for NYPD officers who will handle animal abuse calls indicate that the training will last only about 20 minutes, paling in comparison to extensive experience of current HLE officers, about half of whom are former NYPD cops.

The NYPD takeover of animal abuse cases is a trial program, as a high ranking police department source told PIX11 News.  The source also repeated something that the ASPCA pointed out for this story:  the NYPD has been handling animal cases for years.  The difference is that most cases taken on by the NYPD in the past were reactive — handling incidents of unruly, dangerous animals, for example.

The new cases will involve reports of people abusing animals, and in some cases, that abuse may have gone  on for quite some time before being reported.  How well NYPD officers can handle such cases remains to be seen.