Jim Collins, the noted business author, must have been thinking of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department when he wrote, “The purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence.”
Bureaucracy raised its ugly head in the incident discussed below. In the aftermath a perfectly good dog was removed from the unit, his handler suffered a year of misery and uncertainty and the head of the unit was removed. Readers will find a story that could not be concocted by a writer of fiction and contains a clear warning to other canine units.
Scooby was a 5-year old German Shepherd police dog imported from The Netherlands and handled by Dep. Julie Wilbanks, a 6-year veteran of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department. Scooby was purchased by the Sheriff’s Advisory Board and then donated to the department. Wilbanks had handled Scooby for two years when this incident occurred. They had an exemplary record as a team.
On Jan 12, 2003, while at home, Scooby came from the backyard, through an unsecured door and started a fight with a male Labrador mix that was being walked on a leash by his owner. Scooby didn’t respond to verbal commands to stop fighting and he was not wearing a collar at the time (not required by department policy). At Wilbanks direction, a neighbor who came to assist hit Scooby with a 4 X 4 board. Wilbanks used this opportunity to grab Scooby by the scruff of his neck. In an act of redirected aggression, he bit Julie, causing a laceration to her hand. She let go and Scooby reengaged. The neighbor hit him again and Wilbanks pulled him away by the tail. The other dog had some puncture wounds to his neck and was treated by a vet at a cost of $400.00. Scooby was checked by a vet but not injured. The other dog’s owner suffered a bruised hand from pulling on the leash. Wilbanks required 12 stitches to suture her hand. The on-duty patrol supervisor was notified and Wilbanks completed an internal report the next day. Both the local police and animal control were notified and both did the appropriate reports. Dep. Wilbanks also called Sgt. Ted Atlas, the Canine Unit Supervisor and author of this article, who was on his days off.
For reasons that have never been made clear, County Counsel and the County’s in-house insurance company (ESA) took an interest in this case as did the command staff of the Sheriff’s Department. What should have been a minor issue began to take on a life of it’s own. Because he was going on vacation, Sgt. Atlas received an assurance from the Field Services Commander; no decision would be made in his absence.
While on vacation, Atlas received a call that Scooby was “gone,” although it was not specific whether that meant gone from the unit or taken from Wilbanks. The commander was contacted and agreed nothing would be done until they could meet after Atlas’s return. Dep. Wilbanks was off due to her injury so Scooby was not working at the time.
A meeting took place on Feb 18 with members of the command staff and representatives for County Counsel and ESA. Atlas and his immediate supervisor, Lt. Luther Pugh, presented documentation that Scooby was an excellent police dog and that his behavior, although unfortunate, was not unusual for a police dog. Scooby had over 200 deployments without a single bad bite. They explained the drive to protect their property, be it their home or car, is highly desirable in a police dog. They also said Wilbanks had taken measures to ensure that Scooby would not get out again. Among a number of suggestions they made was that the department’s contracted trainer should do an evaluation of this team. No decisions were made at that meeting.
Atlas and Wilbanks heard nothing until another meeting was held on March 19. The commander told Wilbanks, Scooby was going to be sent to the Air Force to become a military dog. Needless to say Wilbanks was shocked and upset that her partner and family member was being taken from her. She also knew that due to an arthritic condition, Scooby could be euthanized by the Air Force. By the end of this meeting, the commander backed off that idea and said further consideration would be made. He asked Atlas for a letter outlining his ideas on how to deal with this situation and Wilbanks for a letter from her homeowners insurance stating they are liable for the dog while at home. Both letters were given to him within two days.
In May, Atlas met with the commander and a County attorney who said Wilbanks should have been able to control the dog and stop the fight. He based this opinion (none of the decision makers had ever watched this team work and no one ever contacted the trainer) on some telephone conversations with the training sergeant for a large unit in Southern California. Atlas pointed out the handlers were never trained in this or any other techniques to break up a dog fight. To further illustrate their total ignorance of working dogs, the department pointed to two prior incidents, which they said showed that Scooby was uncontrollable. The first incident was when he killed a rabbit during an area search and the second was when he would not immediately release the sleeve during a canine demonstration. Trying to get them to understand that both of those are quite common occurrences was an exercise in total futility.
During this time period, the owner of the other dog wrote letters to the department demanding the dog be removed from their neighborhood. Nobody from the Sheriff’s Department addressed their concerns, although Atlas had suggested to the commander that they should do so together.
On May 27, after staying with Wilbanks for 4 1/2 months, Scooby was taken from her and placed in a boarding kennel pending sending him to the military.
The media picked up this story creating an outpouring of support for Wilbanks and the dog and anger toward Sheriff Laurie Smith. One columnist entitled her article, “How Sheriff mishandled dog attack.” The membership of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association (DSA) gave overwhelming support to Wilbanks and printed up “Free Scooby” t-shirts.
The DSA filed three grievances in behalf of Wilbanks. One of those grievances alleged a violation of the past practice, which allows a handler to purchase the dog at the end of its service life for the sum of $1.00. The County rejected all three grievances.
The DSA enlisted the assistance of Gary Messing of Carroll, Burdick, McDonough. On June 17 a TRO was sought to stop the transfer to the Air Force. The Superior Court issued an injunction pending arbitration and the grievance. Atlas signed a declaration in support of the DSA’s arguments. When he returned to work a few hours after appearing at the hearing, the commander told him he was being removed as the Canine Unit Sergeant and demanded all of the unit files.
Atlas called the department in Southern California on whose information the department based their opinion. Two sergeants told Atlas they never talked to anyone from his department and in their opinions; there was no reason to remove Scooby from the unit. They also told Atlas the technique referred to by County Counsel is not used to end dog fights and there is no accepted practice of doing so. Atlas wrote the commander about these conversations but never received a response.
Ron Yank, also of CBM, entered the case and filed a federal lawsuit in behalf of Atlas, Wilbanks and the DSA. Sheriff Laurie Smith, the commander and three captains were named in the suit, which alleged, among other things, a violation of Atlas’s First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, freedom of association and retaliation for participating in union activities. The suit sought reinstatement of Atlas and Wilbanks back to status quo. Global mediation was held in October. The Sheriff refused to discuss the sale of Scooby to Wilbanks. The federal case was settled. Atlas dropped his request to return to the Canine Unit as he no longer had a working relationship with the command staff and couldn’t be effective as head of the unit. He was given a two-year exemption from transfer from patrol in return. Wilbanks was allowed to return to the unit with a new dog, which she purchased herself.
In December the matter of the sale of Scooby went to Arbitration. Gary Messing argued that every dog in the past was sold to the handler at the end of its career. None of these sales was ever questioned, regardless of their behavior while in the unit. For example, several dogs had multiple unprovoked bites of humans but this did not prevent their sale to their handlers.
The DSA brought in Constable Bob Eden of the Delta, B.C. Police Department and an internationally recognized expert in police canines, to testify that Scooby’s behavior was nothing more than a territorial drive and he is well within the standards and expectations for a police dog. Mr. Messing even subpoenaed Scooby to the hearing, which made for an emotional, although short, reunion with Wilbanks who had not seen him since May.
Sheriff Smith, in a highly unusual appearance, took the stand to defend her decision to refuse to sell Scooby to Wilbanks. She had difficulty explaining why nobody ever talked to the trainer and why she never met with Atlas or Pugh prior to making this decision. She said she relied upon the advice of her command staff, only one of which had ever been a canine handler or supervisor. The DSA not only based their case on the past practice where every dog was sold to the handler at the end of it’s career but also a written procedure enacted in 1998 which set a procedure for selling the dogs.
The County argued against this procedure as it had a two-year sunset clause and was never replaced. They also argued the Sheriff had the right to decide whether a dog was to be sold or not. They based their refusal to sell Scooby to Wilbanks on their fear that since he attacked another dog, he might attack and severely injure a child. Scooby had been used at many school demonstrations and pictures were entered into evidence showing kids hanging on him while he stood motionless.
The County brought in a “expert” in an attempt to discredit the testimony given by Bob Eden. The Sheriff asked the Vancouver, BC Police Department to send Sgt. Gordon McGuiness to San Jose ostensibly to testify as to the VPD policy of including Risk Management in the decision to sell a dog to its handler. McGuiness tried to embellish himself as being more qualified than Eden. He was forced to retract that stance when it was pointed out that his resume indicated he attended numerous seminars put on by Bob Eden and was in fact, a student of Eden’s.
McGuiness testified there was a handler control issue in this team and would have reassigned Scooby to another handler. This went against the County’s stance that Scooby was unfit for duty but that point was not being argued in arbitration. McGuiness went on to defy all credibility when asked whether he would want to see this team work together before making such a decision. He said there was no need as he could tell from reviewing the reports (all written by civilians or non canine people) on this case. Incredible that a person purporting himself to be an expert would make such a decision without ever watching the team work together.
In March, the arbitrator rendered his decision that Sheriff Smith violated the MOU in not selling Scooby to Wilbanks and she was allowed to purchase him for $1. Wielding their bureaucratic power one final time, the department stalled the paperwork for a number of days while Wilbanks anxiously awaited the return of her partner and family member.
This was a case in which bureaucracy and the ego of a department head overrode rational thought and common sense. The appropriate experts were not consulted and those who had no training and experience in the subject at hand made decisions. There was no reason to remove Scooby from the unit, much less refuse to sell him to Wilbanks.
All canine handlers and supervisors should take heed of this case and ensure that the right to purchase a dog, whenever it can no longer work, is written specifically in your MOU. The right to purchase should be with the handler, not the department.
Ted Atlas is a sergeant in the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department where he has worked for 25 years. He has served as a canine handler and was in charge of the Canine Unit from July 2002 until his forced removal. He holds a BA degree from UCLA.
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