NEW YORK CITY––One hundred forty-seven years after Henry Bergh incorporated the American SPCA to enforce the New York state anti-cruelty act of 1860, the ASPCA is transitioning out of the lead role in New York City humane law enforcement.
Since September 1, 2013 the New York City Police Department has officially become the first responder to animal cruelty complaints in the Bronx––as it often has already, throughout the city, due to the great imbalance in personnel available. The NYPD fields 34,500 police officers. The ASPCA had just 17 law enforcement officers as of August 2013, when the transfer of duties was announced.
The ASPCA will continue to handle cruelty complaints in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island for the balance of 2013, but will gradually cede the first responding role to the NYPD during 2014, borough by borough.
The ASPCA will continue to do forensic evaluations in animal cruelty and neglect cases, provide medical treatment and behavioral assessments of the animal victims, and offer legal support and training to the NYPD as needed, said ASPCA president Matthew Bershadker.
Cases not yet within law enforcement authority, such as alleged hoarding situations which might be rectified through intervention rather than prosecution, will continue to be addressed by the three-year-old ASPCA Cruelty Intervention Advocacy program, called ASPCA-CIA for short.
Laying off cruelty law enforcement officers but adding management personnel to help with the transition of authority, the ASPCA on October 1, 2013 announced that 25-year NYPD officer George Kline and former Bronx assistant district attorney Elizabeth Brandler had been hired as liaison to the NYPD and legal advocacy counsel, respectively.
“Kline will serve as the primary point of contact to the NYPD for animal cruelty related issues,” said ASPCA publicist Bret Hopman, “and will also coordinate training of NYPD personnel on animal cruelty matters.”
Kline previously held NYPD positions including chief of detectives special projects unit, and was a member of the NYPD/FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Brandler “comes to the ASPCA after spending nearly six years with the Bronx County District Attorney’s Office, serving as an assistant district attorney in the Investigations Division, Rackets Bureau,” Hopman said.
As an assistant district attorney, Brandler in January 2013 won the conviction of alleged dogfighter Raul Sanchez, 58, for his role in a major dog fighting operation in the Bronx. Sanchez was sentenced to serve from one to three years in prison, and may be deported to Cuba upon release.
Brandler is expected to contribute to the ASPCA presence in anti-dogfighting law enforcement nationwide, growing since 2007, when the ASPCA participated in sending football player Michael Vick to prison for dogfighting.
Arresting dogfighters was a priority for Henry Bergh during his 22 years as ASPCA president, who personally participated in the November 21, 1870 arrest of Kit Burns, the most notorious dogfighter of his time. Some accounts misattribute to Bergh a daring descent through a skylight into the middle of the fighting pit. But Bergh, who had 18 anti-cruelty law enforcement officers at the time, also ceded the lead role to the NYPD on that occasion. The descent into the fighting pit was accomplished by one Police Captain Aliaire. Bergh was, however, among the platoon of police who surrounded the building.
On August 26, 2013––just five days after announcing the transition of New York City humane law enforcement to the NYPD––the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the U.S. helped the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to impound 367 pit bulls in a coordinated series of raids on alleged dogfighters in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, billed as the second-largest dog fighting raid in U.S. history. Thirteen people were arrested. Two more suspects were arrested a month later. Another 16 pit bulls were confiscated then.
“The multi-state dog fighting raid is not something we had the capacity for even two years ago,” said recently retired former ASPCA president Ed Sayres. “While HSUS has been a good partner in this latest effort, we had the lead role in the FBI relationship, the forensic evidence collection, providing the expert witnesses, and housing two-thirds of the dogs.”
“Not getting to cases”
The ASPCA during Sayres’ decade-long tenure also became increasingly involved in disaster relief and response to animal hoarding cases. But while finally becoming the “American” SPCA in the sense of serving the whole nation, not just New York City, the ASPCA was struggling to keep up with the NYC cruelty caseload. “We were not getting to cases for days or weeks,” Bershadker acknowledged to James Barron of The New York Times. “The NYPD’s policy, their practice, is to clear all complaints within eight hours.”
After-hours and weekend calls to the ASPCA often did not get prompt response, Bershadker explained, because the ASPCA had only half the response capability after assigning two officers to respond to each call in 2002. Sending two officers per call––as the NYPD had already done for decades––became necessary because of the need to have multiple witnesses in court cases, and the need to have backup help at hand.
A less frequent category of calls that did not get immediate response, Bershadker said, involved situations where the first two ASPCA officers would decide they needed more backup than was immediately available from the police, who gave responding to backup requests from fellow police and firefighters a higher priority. Then the ASPCA officers would go on to handle whatever they could handle, until more backup was available.
Before giving up the New York City animal control contract in 1994, the ASPCA had a much larger law enforcement staff than in recent years, but many of the personnel did not have the authority to make arrests. Their work focused on issuing citations for infractions such as dog-at-large and excessive barking, and doing impoundments in routine bite cases.
Giving up the animal control enabled the ASPCA to shed most of what had become a very difficult relationship with the two unions that represented the staff hired to work under the city contract. The ASPCA law enforcement officers remaining after the ASPCA surrendered the animal control contract were among the few unionized personnel left at the ASPCA afterward.
As the first nonprofit agency formed to do humane law enforcement, the ASPCA established a model prevailing nationwide. Realizing that cities, counties, and towns mostly lacked the funding and political will to take on humane law enforcement, Henry Bergh persuaded the New York state legislature to grant the ASPCA a charter recognizing it as an entity with the same authority to appoint constables as cities, counties, and towns. Just as constables are empowered to enforce laws only within the city, county, or town that appoints them, ASPCA officers were granted law enforcement powers only within their jurisdiction––but their jurisdiction was limited to animals, not to city, county, or town boundaries.
This made the ASPCA the “animal police force” for all of New York state. Bergh led law enforcement operations as far away as Buffalo, at the extreme opposite end of the state from New York City. Lack of funding to maintain a statewide presence, however, caused the ASPCA to retreat from law enforcement outside of New York City after Bergh’s death, leaving a void that was gradually––but never completely––filled by other SPCA organizations.
Statutes passed in many other states in emulation of the New York legislation established a distinction prevailing until the mid-20th century between SPCAs, which had constabulary law enforcement authority, and other humane societies, which did not. Though now considered archaic, since almost all law enforcement agencies now enforce humane laws, the distinction between an SPCA and other humane laws remains on the books in some states.
Constabulary humane law enforcement meanwhile became the model for delegating many other forms of guarding public safety to nonprofit organizations, including volunteer fire departments and game wardens appointed by hunting and fishing clubs.
Concern often voiced about the ASPCA leaving constabulary humane law enforcement pertains to the precedent that it might set outside of big cities. SPCAs serving rural areas have often done humane law humane enforcement with limited cooperation from elected county judges and sheriffs, under the critical scrutiny of locally influential farmers, hunters, and dog breeders. Will the ASPCA abandonment of doing on-call law enforcement further undercut those rural SPCAs’ efforts, and perhaps cause them to lose their law enforcement authority entirely?
“In rural environments,” assessed Sayres, “this may cause backward steps, but I think that in the long view, having private nonprofits with law enforcement powers is not a model that will be allowed to stand in the future. I am amazed that someone hasn’t challenged it more seriously. The idea that a tax-exempt group can advocate for laws and then have a role in enforcing those laws was feasible in the 19th century, but I don’t think it is a model that will be followed in the 21st century.”