NEW YORK CITY––Rescues of New York City animals from cruelty and neglect and arrests of alleged offenders all soared in 2014, the first full year since the American SPCA began turning the lead role in humane law enforcement over to the New York Police Department.
Impoundments of abused and neglected animals nearly tripled, from circa 140 per year to almost 400. Arrests of alleged animal abusers also tripled, from circa 40-45 per year under the ASPCA to more than 130 under the NYPC.
“It’s a tremendous increase from previous years,” acknowledged ASPCA senior director Howard Lawrence to Rebecca Harshbarger of the New York Post. Lawrence attributed the surge in animal rescues and arrests of alleged offenders to “mobilizing a police force of 35,000 people. The ASPCA had a much smaller force.”
That was something of an understatement. The ASPCA law enforcement division had 20 officers when the Discovery Channel series Animal Precinct: New York aired from 2001-2008, and had dwindled to 17 officers as of August 2013, when the transfer of duties was announced.
ASPCA held job for 147 years
Observing that the New York state anti-cruelty act of 1860 had gone unenforced, founder Henry Bergh organized the ASPCA in 1866 to enforce the law on a constabulary basis. The ASPCA remained primarily responsible for doing humane law enforcement in New York City until September 1, 2013, when a new protocol made the NYPD officially the first responder to animal cruelty complaints in the Bronx.
The ASPCA continued to handle cruelty complaints in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island until the end of 2013, but on January 24, 2014 ceded the first responding role in all boroughs to the NYPD.
The ASPCA still offers forensic evaluations in animal cruelty and neglect cases, provides medical treatment and behavioral assessments of the animal victims, and supplies legal support and training to the NYPD as needed.
Cases not yet within law enforcement authority, such as alleged hoarding situations which might be rectified through intervention rather than prosecution, continue to be addressed by the four-year-old ASPCA Cruelty Intervention Advocacy program, called ASPCA-CIA for short.
“Not getting to cases”
The ASPCA from 1895 to 1994 also handled animal care and control for New York City. After transitioning responsibility for those duties to the New York City Center for Animal Care & Control, the ASPCA developed an increasingly strong national presence, especially in legislative matters, disaster relief, and helping smaller agencies respond 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 struggled to keep up with the NYC cruelty caseload. “We were not getting to cases for days or weeks,” ASPCA president Matthew Bershadker acknowledged to James Barron of The New York Times, soon after his mid-2013 promotion to succeed 10-year president Ed Sayres. “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 to ANIMALS 24-7, 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 the first 14 years of the 21st century, 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 contract 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.
Model for other public safety agencies as well
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 societies 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.
After the ASPCA announced it would turn humane law enforcement over to the NYPD, ANIMALS 24-7 heard considerable concern about the precedent that the transition might set for other cities, especially small cities that are the population hubs of rural areas. Humane law enforcement in such areas has historically been done mostly by nonprofit SPCAs using their constabulary authority, with limited cooperation from elected county judges and sheriffs, under the critical scrutiny of locally influential farmers, hunters, and dog breeders.
Whether the ASPCA abandonment of doing on-call law enforcement might further undercut those rural SPCAs’ efforts, and perhaps cause them to lose their law enforcement authority entirely, remains an open question.
“In rural environments,” assessed former ASPCA president Ed 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.”