Veto followed four days of consultation, including with medical experts
DENVER––Mayor Michael B. Hancock on February 14, 2020 vetoed the repeal of the 30-year-old Denver ban on pit bulls engineered by council member Chris Herndon on February 10, 2020.
The veto was upheld on February 24, 2020.
The Hancock veto handed an unexpected Valentine to potential pit bull attack victims, both human and animal.
The repeal bill originally passed by a vote of 7-4, with two council members absent. One of the two absentees, Candi Lee CdeBaca, favored the repeal. The other absentee, Stacie Gilmore, opposed it.
For the council to override the Hancock veto would have taken a minimum of nine votes, meaning that at least one councilor would have to switch sides.
Herndon may try to put pit bulls before Denver voters
Herndon told the Denver Post that if the city council failed to override the veto, he would try to place a similar measure on the November 2020 city ballot.
Hancock, a third-term incumbent, elected in 2011 and twice re-elected by margins of never less than 56%, had never before vetoed a bill. Hancock was expected to be especially reluctant to veto a bill by Herndon.
Herndon, as Denver Westword columnist Michael Roberts observed, “is widely perceived to be in Hancock’s corner most of the time.”
Neighboring Aurora affirmed pit bull ban in 2014
Hancock, before being elected mayor, represented Denver district 11, adjoining only one other Denver district, district 8, represented by Herndon since 2011. Both districts adjoin the Denver suburb of Aurora, which like Denver banned pit bulls in 1989.
Aurora voters affirmed their pit bull ban by a 68% margin in 2014––which would not bode well for an attempt to repeal the Denver pit bull ban by public ballot. Only once have voters failed to uphold a pit bull, in Springfield, Missouri in 2018, and that ban had not yet taken effect.
(See Attempt to repeal pit bull ban crushed in Colorado; Losing in Aurora, pit bull advocates set their dogs on us, Blue Buffalo, & Home 4 the Holidays; and Springfield, Missouri votes down ban on acquiring new pit bulls.)
“Heard from thousands of residents”
Explained Hancock in his veto statement, posted to Facebook and shared with media at about 4:00 p.m. Denver time:
“Over the past several days, I have heard from thousands of residents passionately expressing their opinions on both sides of this issue. I want to thank everyone who has shared their views, especially those I have spoken to personally – experts in veterinary care, animal care and control, as well as residents of our city who have had experiences with the pit bull breeds – all to gain a broader understanding of what this change would mean for our community and those who own these dogs. After deep reflection and consideration, I find that I cannot, in good conscience, support this legislation and will exercise my authority as Mayor to veto it.
“Let me say at the outset that I salute the sponsor of this ordinance, councilman Herndon,” Hancock continued, “and his fellow council members, who have tried to craft legislation that creates a data and licensing system for these breeds that is supported by veterinary experts and encourages owners of pit bull breeds to manage their pets.
Sub-20% licensing rate bodes poorly for licensing-based enforcement
“Unfortunately,” Hancock pointed out, “less than 20% of all pets in Denver are currently licensed, which raises significant questions about the effectiveness of this proposed new system. While much progress has been made in recent years to increase that number, more intentional efforts around responsible pet ownership, dog licensure and registration, and off-leash dogs are needed before this proposal should be considered.
“The reality,” Hancock emphasized, “is that irresponsible pet owners continue to be a problem, and it is the irresponsible owners and their dogs I must consider in evaluating the overall impact of this ordinance.
“We cannot diminish the very real, very traumatic experiences of those who have reached out to me to share their stories,” Hancock stated, and repeatedly affirmed in a follow-up televised media conference.
“Very real risk of severe injury”
“While I appreciate the effort that Councilman Herndon has put in to crafting this ordinance and its guardrails,” Hancock said, “I do not believe this ordinance fully addresses the very real risk of severe injury that can result from attacks from these particular dog breeds, especially should they happen to a child.
“At the end of the day,” Hancock finished, “I must ask whether passage of this ordinance would make our homes and neighborhoods safer, or pose an increased risk to public safety? I have concluded that it would pose an increased risk. I encourage members of City Council to reconsider their approach to this ordinance, which has been in the municipal code for over three decades. If we were to make this change now, and harm comes to someone as a result, then we have done a disservice to the people of this great city.”
Hancock, 50, during the follow-up media conference, alluded often to growing up in Denver, arriving with his family as an infant from Fort Hood, in Killeen, Texas.
Hancock remembers pit bull attacks that brought the 1989 ban
Hancock explained that he personally remembered when a pit bull killed 3-year-old Fernando Salazar in southwest Denver in October 1986. The pit bull belonged to neighbor Gil Troncasa.
Hancock also mentioned personally remembering when in 1989 a five-year-old pit bull named Tate mauled evangelical pastor Wilbur Billingsley, 58, in an alley behind his Denver home, inflicting more that seventy bites, breaking both of his legs and his right kneecap.
Billingsley never fully recovered before his reported death on March 15, 1992.
Hancock in 1986 was a 16-year-old mascot for the American Football League champion Denver Broncos, who lost to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. In 1989 Hancock was halfway to earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska.
Originally from Kansas City, Herndon was only nine years old when Salazar was killed by a pit bull. Herndon was 12 and still in Kansas City at the time of the Billingsley attack.
Loco the Rottweiler
Moving to Denver in 2005, after a career in the U.S. Air Force, which bans pit bulls from base housing, Herndon does not appear to have ever lived in proximity to a fatal or severely disfiguring dog attack of any sort before a Rottweiler named Loco, with bite history dating to 2011, in 2016 attacked three people in Denver in six months, including a 20-month-old infant. Two of the victims suffered broken legs.
Opponents of the Denver pit bull cited the Loco attacks as purported evidence that the pit bull ban was not working to protect the city. What the Loco attacks actually demonstrated was laggard dog law enforcement by Denver Animal Protection director Alice Nightengale, along with a need to add Rottweilers and a handful of other dog breeds closely related to pit bulls to the letter of the 1989 law.
Two fatal pit bull attacks on day of repeal vote
Hancock during the televised media conference about his veto also mentioned that he was influenced by the two deaths from pit bull attacks that occurred on February 10, 2020, just before the pit bull repeal bill went to a Denver city council vote.
In Oro Grande, California, on the renowned Route 66 approaching Los Angeles, 5-year-old Sterling Vermeer was killed by the 12-year-old family pit bull, named Thor, raised in the household from puppyhood.
In Plainfield, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, 25-year-old Devin J. White died from severe bites to his arms inflicted two nights earlier by his own pit bull in what police said was an “unprovoked” attack that also injured a 52-year-old man, a 19-year-old man, and a 25-year-old woman.
What the Denver pit bull ban does
The Denver pit bull ban prohibits keeping pit bull breeds, defined as American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or “any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of the above breeds, or any dog exhibiting those distinguishing characteristics, which substantially conform to the standards established by American Kennel Club or United Kennel Club.”
Enforcement of the Denver ordinance was suspended for several months by a lower court ruling against it, but it was upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court in 1992.
Seven other Colorado “Front Range” cities––Aurora, Castle Rock, Commerce City, Fort Lupton, La Junta, Lone Tree, and Louisville––eventually passed similar pit bull bans.
National advocacy groups blocked further pit bull bans
In 2004, however, a state law prohibited communities from passing new breed-specific ordinances, pushed through the legislature by the pit bull advocacy organization Animal Farm Foundation, the Best Friends Animal Society, the American SPCA, the Denver Dumb Friends League, and the Humane Society of the U.S.
While the Aurora ordinance was upheld when put before the voters in 2014, the Castle Rock ordinance was repealed by the city council in 2018, without being placed before the voters.
The vetoed Herndon bill, he summarized before the Denver city council vote to Michael Roberts of Denver Westword, would require “Someone who has one of these breeds to go to Denver Animal Protection and get a license. They’ll just have to give the name of the owner and the address where the dog will reside, two emergency contacts, a description of the pit bull and a recent photograph, proof that the dog is microchipped and current on vaccinations, and pay an annual fee. And if 36 months passes and the dog doesn’t have any violations of Denver animal ordinances, the dog can transition to the regular license that any goldendoodle can have now.”
Herndon bill allows pit bulls to run amok for eight hours before requiring report
A goldendoodle is a cross of golden retriever with standard poodle. No goldendoodle has ever injured anyone severely enough to make the ANIMALS 24-7 log of fatal and disfiguring dog attacks, maintained since 1982. More than 7,000 pit bulls, however, have qualified.
The Herndon bill also provided that “an owner can’t keep more than two pit bulls at any time and is required to notify authorities within eight hours if the pit bull has escaped or attacked a person or another animal,” Roberts summarized, “or within 24 hours if the dog dies or the owner moves.
“Moreover,” observed Roberts, “one section notes, ‘animal protection officers shall be permitted access at reasonable times and in a reasonable manner to inspect the pit bull and/or the premise where the pit bull is located for sanitary and health conditions.”
The Herndon bill also stipulated that Denver Animal Protection “is the only agency that can provide a pit bull breed assessment valid in Denver.”