Austin Film Festival 2015: Documentary ‘Of Dogs and Men’ tackles tough subject with fairness, hope

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ODAM_PosterDon’t let the subject matter — the police killings of family dogs — keep you from seeing “Of Dogs and Men.”

The powerful documentary had its world premiere on Sunday at the Austin Film Festival, and it came with a warning about graphic images, including video of dogs being shot and killed and photos of blood and dead dogs. Those sequences are hard. But the most emotional responses (including audible sobbing) in the audience came when the people whose dogs were killed talked about what they loved and missed about their pets, accompanied by images of their happy dogs. Dog lovers understand the depth of those feelings. And it’s clear from footage in several incidents: These dogs did not have to die.

Director Michael Ozias said in a Q&A after the screening that when he first heard of a dog being killed by a cop, he assumed it was an isolated incident. His research led him to a Department of Justice statistic that more than 10,000 family dogs are shot by police each year (and no record of any officer on duty being killed by a dog).

Ozias said he purposely featured multiple cases to show the scope of the problem and that it can happen anywhere to anyone, even to the mayor of a small Maryland town. (He also knew he did not want to create “an exercise in misery.” The footage of shootings, mostly from dash cams and cell phones, is presented thoughtfully and without exploitation.)

Two social changes over the past several decades are suggested as factors, because they’ve put more dogs in the paths of officers: the elevation of dogs to members of the family (“from the barnyard to the bedroom”) and the rise in drug raids during the war on drugs. According to one expert in the film, SWAT raids have gone from about 300 a year in the 1970s to 50,000 a year now. We learn that officers have been told that drug dealers often use dogs as violent protectors and those threats need to be neutralized first; it’s suggested this has become a generalized tactic for some. We also learn that many officers haven’t been trained in dog behavior — barking and growling are seen only as aggression, for example, not excitement or communication — or in non-lethal tactics for dealing with dogs. And the film makes sure to point out the stressful and chaotic situations police officers deal with on a regular basis; how can they watch both a human and dog who might attack?

But none of the people profiled in the film were drug dealers or even criminals — in most of the cases, including Michael Paxton of Austin and his blue heeler Cisco, a bad address or bad information about a situation brought officers to their homes. Only one was targeted (again, mistakenly) by a SWAT team. And video footage from several of these incidents shows dogs who were not behaving in a life-threatening way.

After all this, you might be surprised to hear that you’re likely to leave this documentary emotionally spent, but hopeful. The dog owners are not looking to vilify law enforcement; they’re all working toward what seems to be a simple answer: more training for police officers.

In Texas, there already has been some real change. Two folks featured in the documentary were at Sunday’s screening and spoke afterward: Cindy Boling, whose border collie, Lily, was shot and killed by police in Fort Worth, and (now retired) Fort Worth Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead. Boling and Halstead met because of Lily’s death and they worked together first for training in Fort Worth and then with the Texas Humane Legislation Network for passage of a bill to mandate training throughout the state. (Austin Police made canine encounter training mandatory even before the legislation passed.)

Jim Osorio is a former police officer who now trains police on how to deal with dogs, emphasizing non-lethal tactics first. He’s already trained many in Texas and is helping to create a curriculum for the state.

Texas is the second state (after Colorado, detailed in the movie), to pass this kind of protection for dogs.

“Of Dogs and Men” screens again at 4:30 p.m. Monday at the Galaxy Highland. After that, Ozias hopes to get it distributed, of course, and perhaps used as part of officer training.

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