Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Is Denver safe from pit bulls?

As part of the organization I work for, I've had to draft letters to foundations for prospective educational programs. Within the draft, parameters of success are always included - foundations like to know how you, the organization, will identify the efficacy of the program. It's their money and they want to know it's going to an entity that will be fiscally responsible AND, more importantly, provide concrete evidence of success.

Yet time and time again, cities across the country enact laws without requiring the laws to be successful. For me, Denver is the most glaring example of a city that has enacted a law - banning pit bulls - and has yet to provide any concrete evidence that the law reduces pit bull bites or improves human safety. The money being spent is not foundation grants but taxpayer dollars.

For years, officials in Denver balked at the idea they needed to provide concrete evidence indicating the pit bull ban has been useful. In this recent article, a spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Health, when asked if the ban has been successful says:

“I don’t know that there’s one single answer to that,” she said recently. “I think it all depends on the way you look at it.”
I'm sorry, let me pick up my jaw from off the ground. This isn't rocket science, you are not being asked to elaborate on string theory or bioengineering. You are being asked - has this law worked for the reasons in which it was drafted? Have dog bites been reduced? Have pit bull dog bites changed significantly? Is the population of pit bulls smaller/larger in the shelter system? I don't need to look at it in any particularly strange way, I just want to know if the law has produced the desired results.

According to the director of animal control:
"We have not had a severe mauling or fatality involving a pit bull since the ordinance went into effect. But then again, we continue to get more pit bulls every depends on how you define success."
Well, it's not as if Denver had innumerable accounts of severe or fatal maulings before or during the ordinance. If you define the success of an ordinance based on an extraordinarily rare event not occurring (i.e. dog bite related fatality), then I might as well enact a law banning toothpicks and, when no one loses an eye from one, declare my law a winner.

Do these folks in Denver have any clue on what success is or how it is defined? I feel a bit on the edge of the Twilight Zone - it cannot be unfathomably difficult to say "look at my dog bite statistics - pit bull bites are down; look at my dog bite statistics - dog bites are down; look at my shelter intake reports - pit bulls are nowhere to be found" And my statistical analysis says hey, this is because of that there law enacted. I want a smidgen of correlation and causation (even though we know correlation isn't always linked to causation). If your law's premise is to a) reduce pit bull bites; b) reduce the number of pit bulls; c) reduce dog bites overall, then it isn't mind-boggling to track dog bites, track pit bull bites, track population dynamics. Really, it's not.

And when it is suggested by a council member that, maybe this law isn't doing what it's supposed to and we should rescind portions of it, another council member has this to say:
“I wish they would visit some of these victims lying in hospital beds trying to recover from pit bull attacks,” said Brown.
Logical fallacy for the lose! Appealing to emotion, Mr. Brown wants sane-minded folk to just disregard this whole "where's your evidence of success" and "LOOK AT THE POOR MAULED PEOPLE WASTING AWAY IN HOSPITALS". And if you don't, you are just a very bad person who doesn't care about pit bull attack victims. Thus we have completely diverted our attention from the glaring lack of supporting evidence!

I totally understand being miffed by California folks trying to change a law in Denver, I do. But that should not detract from the underwhelming evidence that Denver's pit bull ban is a roaring success. When your animal control director and your health and safety folks cannot provide viable, valid data to support a law that has cost millions and killed thousands, then it seems fair to re-evaluate the law and either re-work it or get rid of it and put that money elsewhere. And when your council members are saying stuff just to make people feel angry and sad and emotional, you know they have no logical, statistical information to back up their claims.

But to put it all in perspective, in Colorado - 1 in 350 dogs bite. In this survey, that's one third of one percentage of dogs. Inifintisemally small. So even if you have a really successful dog law, in the state of Colorado, all that serves to do is take an already small issue (that of dog bites) and reduce it further. Colorado, as a state, is safe - less than one percent of its dogs bites people. Denver's law is one that cannot even be emulated because that which makes it "successful" cannot even be defined. I mean, is that embarrassing or what?


Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's pretty unbelievable that as a society we have allowed cities to continually pass laws but not put any emphasis on measuring the results of the laws once they're passed to know if they are effective or not. It's pretty insane. Miami passed their ban in 1991 and didn't measure dog bites for another 10 years following the passing of the law. It's just odd that there is zero accountability.

I will caution though on how we insist cities measure "success". Success should come in the form of improving overall public safety. Logically, if you ban 'pit bulls' for instance -- and you eventually run off all the responsible owners and kill most of the rest of the dogs of that type -- eventually bites by pit bulls will go down. There will be so many fewer of them it would be statistically impossible fro them not to. However, if the irresponsible dog owners out there decide that they are going to get some type of Mastiff, or German Shepherd or Akita instead, and total bites go up by other breeds, that's not success. Kory Nelson in Denver always defends the law by saying the law shouldn't impact bites by other breeds, but he couldn't be more wrong. It only makes sense that pit bull bites would go down as you kill them off (although Denver can't prove that either) - but if we just change the problem to other breeds, it really hasn't improved overall public safety from dogs -- which was (supposedly) the overall goal. This doesn't take into account the amount of time animal control spends trying to enforce the said ban instead of using the resoures to round up stray mongrel dogs and dogs that are suffering from cruelty/neglect of other breeds that eventually cause a problem. It should never be about "eliminating pit bull bites" - -it needs to be about improving public safety...and no city yet has shown evidence that a breed ban can do that.

Lisa said...

And note that Denver is the only county in Colorado that is classified as high risk for serious dog bites by the Dept. of Health. I'd think that's the statistic you'd be looking at if you wanted an honest assessment of the efficacy of the law. (I do think it's causal, as the breed ban requires a big chunk of the limited AC budget to enforce, leaving fewer resources to investigate reports of things that do lead to dog bites, such as dogs at large, vicious dogs, dogs suffering from abuse and neglect, etc. Their AC is all busy tracking down innocent family pets reported to have fiveheads.)

And a lot of the more vocal opponents of the ban, including me, used to live in Denver but no longer do because we value our dogs' lives.

That also includes all the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit against the city. That's why most of the arguments were thrown out. They all left the city to save their dogs, so they're not considered at risk of future prosecution under the law.