breed discrimination · Human-Canine Bond

You Know.

Preston at the corner of W117th and Detroit Avenue where Cleveland borders Lakewood, Ohio.

Mayor Summers and current members of Lakewood City Council:

We know. You know we know.

Tuesday, September 5, many current and former Lakewood, Ohio residents, who probably last saw the inside of city hall in 2008, came back again with several passionate new dog advocates seeking justice. Many stood together in the back of the auditorium of council chambers and held signs in peaceful protest as we awaited the fate of Charlie – one of the newest family dogs affected by your archaic law.

Over 9 years ago, many of us who were present Tuesday, sat in that same auditorium listening to your predecessors cherry pick their “facts” about dogs and dog behavior – specifically “pit bull” dogs. Over the course of 2-3 months, Council repeatedly cited primarily two online resources for their proof of these dogs being different – Colleen Lynn’s DogsBite.org and Merritt Clifton’s annual “study”, Dog Attack Deaths and Maimings .., both of which have been proven unreliably inaccurate, incredibly biased, and torn to shreds over and over again.

The proposal to enact a ban of “pit bull and canary” dogs in Lakewood by former Councilman, Brian Powers, was supposedly started, according to Powers, for a couple primary reasons; the state of Ohio’s (at the time) existing restriction on “pit bulls” that passed in 1987 (and repealed in 2012), explaining the duty the city has to enforce the statewide law without getting additional funding, as well as an unfortunate serious incident involving a drunk man, who went to an after-hours party at the home of someone he did not know, feeding meat to the owner’s dog at 3:30 in the morning. The owner suggested the man, who admitted to drinking all night long, had been teasing the dog before he got bit.

There have been other additional excuses for the proposal of the law back then, but these are the two most repeated during that period.

In an effort to remain transparent, I admit to having some personal motivation in this subject matter. The previous year (2007), I began a documentary film about dog-fighting, with a focus on the victims – the dogs, after NFL star quarterback, Michael Vick, was suspected of the crime. I stumbled upon these laws called breed specific legislation (BSL) by accident. If you spend enough time Googling “pit bull dogs” and “dog-fighting”, it won’t take you long before you do. Additionally, I am also guilty of being a lifelong dog-lover, who has shared my home with a variety of different dogs during my life, but none would have been considered a “pit bull”. So, now that my own bias is out there, let me just say, that doesn’t change the facts about this cause.

Just a couple weeks prior to the first council meeting where BSL was introduced, I visited the home of the founder of the only pit bull rescue in Cleveland – For the Love of Pits, for research on this film. And, again, by accident discovered my soulmate in the form of a dog. The moment our eyes met, I knew instantly Preston was and still is my soul dog. On that day, I made my intentions known that I was going to adopt this dog…until Lakewood threw an unexpected wrench in those plans.

I started showing up and recording all of the meetings. I spoke at the very first one, telling council about my film, and threatened to leave the city I called home if they should move forward and pass their ban. In my few minutes of allotted time allowed to speak, I also told them what I loved about Lakewood. Besides the nightlife, I told them how when I drive through town, all I see are humans walking their dogs. That’s why I chose Lakewood!

Publicly, the city prided itself on being progressive and open-minded, but I soon found out much of that was built on a lie and described best as – beauty is only skin deep.

After that first meeting, Council was caught in the middle of a Fox 8 I-Team News investigation for questionable practices relating to Lakewood animal control visiting residents who spoke and claimed to own one of these dogs, to ensure they were compliant with state law (i.e. liability insurance, containment requirements, etc.). My footage of council members squirming after being called out by a husband-wife attorney duo in the third council meeting was used in this news segment.

After this, the direction of the film abruptly changed to breed discrimination, and Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent was born.

Meeting after meeting, expert testimony after expert testimony, Council chose to disregard verifiable scientific facts, choosing sensationalism and irrational fear to pass the ban in July 2008, with a grandfather clause to save face as a “compromise”. Owners of “pit bull” dogs were given a chance to keep them by registering their dogs annually, and maintain compliance with the other outlined stipulations.

Back then, Lakewood was able to call your dog a “pit bull”, and there was no real way to fight the designation. One of the first residents I met and interviewed was Jeannine and Jason, owners of Macey. If you were able to present a case that the visual identification done by ACOs was invalid, you were able to have your dog’s name removed off the registered “pit bull” list. After obtaining a letter from their vet, completing DNA tests that showed Macey was 51% English Bulldog and 49% Labrador (aka – no “pit bull” of any kind), and hiring an attorney, they finally received that elusive hearing date in 2011, after waiting three long years without due process. They subsequently won their case, and Macey was no longer a “pit bull” by Lakewood’s standards. She passed away on April 22, 2016, after a fight with lymphoma.

2009 marked the first full year of the ban being in effect. Any “pit bull” dogs who were not registered before the December deadline, were officially illegal. Two incidents of such cases were most memorable:

  • white boxer named, Otis, who got out of the house while his owner was sleeping. A horrific video surfaced of the dog warden tasing Otis not once, but twice, then using the catch pole and dragged him on his back before lifting him up into the van by his neck. The dog community was appalled. A deal was made with the owner that would give Otis back, but only if he was removed from the city and never returned.
  • The harassment of a 20-year military veteran, Leonard Shelton, who served in both Iraq wars, and suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Besides companionship, Leonard used his dog, Roscoe, to help with his PTSD. He ended up moving, then suing Lakewood, later settled out of court.

Through the years, several members of that administration moved on. Former Mayor Ed Fitzgerald was elected to the top seat in Cuyahoga County – County Executive, then ran an unsuccessful campaign to be Ohio’s next Governor. There were always rumblings through the grapevine about Fitzgerald being the bird chirping in Councilman Powers ear to propose the ban. Brian was given his At-Large seat due to an open spot on Council, in an election year. As the old saying goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity, because Powers went on to win his seat in that election after his name and face was plastered all over the news for several months bringing him name recognition at the ballot box. He later became Council President, before leaving local politics altogether at the end of 2013.

If there’s one thing I can say positive about him, he did accept and follow through with an interview with me for my film in 2009. Towards the end of the interview, I asked him: if Ohio repealed it’s law, would Lakewood then propose legislation to repeal their ban, since the statewide law was such a big factor?

He replied:
“Absolutely. If the state of Ohio changed the law – the breed specific legislation that covers the entire state right now, we cannot pass breed neutral legislation undoing that. If the state law changed, I’m very confident that we would explore changing the Lakewood law.”

A few weeks after the state law officially repealed in May 2012, I emailed Councilman Powers asking when we can begin discussions on Lakewood’s repeal. You see, I’m a man of my word, and when another man looks me in the eyes and tells me he’s going to do something, call me naive, but I expect him to follow through with that.

His reply was “not sure that any members of City Council would be supportive of changing our current law. Things have stabilized here and the law seems to be working fine. But I’ll keep an open mind if anyone proposes a change.”

What?! Working fine? No, it wasn’t.

This response did anger me a bit, to be blatantly lied to by a public official on camera…an example of the exact reason nobody trusts politicians nowadays. From there, I just wanted to Hold Politicians Accountable Again!

I took Mr. Powers advice and immediately forwarded that email to the rest of Council requesting to open dialogue about a repeal. Not one responded. I was under the impression public officials, are at the very least ethically obligated to respond to all inquiries from the public, including those who now reside outside their city. A couple weeks went by, I sent another, but this time I received a couple snarkier responses in return, including one who only wanted to confirm that I am no longer a Lakewood resident.

Most on Council from 2008 have left office, but some have found a way to stick around. Councilman Tom Bullock, who is up for re-election at the end of this year (2017) is the last remaining member still serving on council. Councilman Michael Summers was appointed by Council in 2011 to take over as Mayor once Fitzgerald left to run the County government. Last, Councilman Kevin Butler became Lakewood’s Law Director. Some of the most influential members in Lakewood’s current legislative branch of government, are from a previous regime with a checkered past regarding this law.

After Lakewood passed their ban, I took my videocamera to Avon Lake, and sat in on a year’s worth of council meetings beginning in 2009. Their Council eventually decided against moving forward with additional measurements towards “pit bull” dog ownership.

For the next several years, whenever there was a city, especially in my NE Ohio region, where this topic was on their agenda, I made every attempt to educate those public officials of the harms this law creates, with some success. I oftentimes point to my experiences with Lakewood. My reason for stating this is, I’ve literally heard every argument possible in favor of breed specific legislation, and not one actually does anything to solve the root problem of maintaining public safety, which is the stated goal.

In late 2015, Shaker Heights, Ohio – another suburb in the Cleveland area, proposed a ban. The Mayor of “The Heights” used Lakewood’s success as an example in his opening remarks to council and the public the day of the vote. Through a public records request, I discovered extensive one-on-one discussions by a Shaker Heights councilwoman and the founder of DogsBite.org, Colleen Lynn, attempting to get advice on how to respond to facts that go against their plan to enact a ban – the same “resource” that Lakewood council used to support their quest. It was eventually voted down 5-2 in January 2016.

This is for Macey.  This is for Otis the boxer. This is for Roscoe. This is for Charlie. This is for all families and their dogs who were unfairly labeled in Lakewood as dangerous because someone identified them as a “pit bull” – whether said dog actually was or not. And this is definitely for my dog, Preston. I had to delay the adoption for 6 months while searching for a new city to live who would accept him as an individual. Now estimated to be 12 years old and closer to the end than to the beginning, I want those 6 months back, Lakewood City Council.

Peaceful protestors who stood in back during a Lakewood City Council meeting in support of the dog, Charlie.

So, here we are full circle. Another family and their dog being negatively impacted by your law. Just yesterday, the results from the hearing came back, saying Charlie, short of a lawsuit, must leave the city within 30 days. Back in 2008, I liked to give the benefit of the doubt, because there was a very real (irrational) fear among the public and often a misconception about these dogs. Many of us in animal welfare have also made mistakes about this issue. But over the last 9 years, there’s been an overwhelming abundance of data showing the failure of these laws. There’s just no more excuses for being misinformed. I don’t know if it’s pride or what.

But, you know. We know you know.

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