BBC Radio 4's Law in Action was broadcast on Tuesday, 6 June, 2006 when it turned its attention to the growing use of dogs as ‘weapons’ in criminal activity
Radio 4's programme had been alerted to a controversy about the use of dangerous dogs for criminal activity. It is controversial because there are no official statistics. Yet the claim has been backed by a police authority, the RSPCA, local authorities, dog groups and by the public; all say it is a growing problem.
Types of dogs used vary from Staffordshire Bull Terriers to Mastiffs and pit-bull type dogs.
Last month, in West London, a man was attacked with a meat cleaver after complaining to two men who had left their dogs off the lead. The dogs were snapping at his heels, but, once he protested, they set the dogs on him, and then hacked him mercilessly with the cleaver. The police are treating the incident as attempted murder. And this month, a man was sentenced to five years in prison after he set his dog on a police officer sent to a crime scene - Sergeant Chris Allsop, of the Greater Manchester Police, tells us about the horrific attack:
"I went into the address and was confronted by a man who was trying to intimidate me with a dog. He was very cocky, confrontational, and he had the lead wrapped tightly around his right hand. He was pushing the dog out in front of him, and it was actually well behaved at first, it looked excitable, but it very, very quickly became violent. The actual spark that sent the dog into the frenzy, when it started biting, was the hissing noise, which I later found out was the word 'cats'. The dog started jumping for my face, trying to bite me, I had to try and pin the dog down, putting my arms out, and pin it to the floor, and then also pin the male in the kitchen, whilst waiting for other officers to arrive and assist. I suffered cuts to both forearms, severe swelling, about the size of golf balls on each arm, several puncture wounds on my right arm on both sides, and I've got significant scarring on both fore-arms."
And this is a growing problem. It is well known, anecdotally, that there is an increasing problem of dogs being used like this, as 'tools' of crime, or in the commission of crime. The programme spoke to the RSPCA, Metropolitan Police Authority, dog warders and vets, who all back this up.
Mark Callis, Senior Dog Control Officer, Wandsworth council said:
"We have this culture at present which seems to be ever growing, where you get gangs of youths. They tend to occur on housing estates but it is not just confined to housing estates, it could be locals parks. But rather fight one another with bottles and bricks or whatever, they have dogs. And they just meet up with another gang - put these two dogs into a play pen or a tennis court or something like that and let them fight to see who wins and they decide who is the superior gang on who has got the better dog."
"Then there will be people on the outskirts who will use these dogs to intimidate passers by. The dog does not need to do anything. The fact that it is a Staffordshire bull terrier and there is a youth there threatening you and saying he is going to let the dog on you is enough to intimidate a lot of decent people. And there are cases where dogs are being used as weapons."
Mike Butcher, Chief Inspector, RSPCA special operations unit commented:
"We obviously get calls through our centres and we have noticed there is a very large increase in calls coming in from the public to say this is occurring. We work very closely with the police in London and elsewhere, and I am aware of this rising trend as well from our police contacts, and it is predominantly young people who walk around in groups, and I think the dog is a bit of a macho symbol, and the RSPCA's worry is that people get these dogs as a sexy image dog and they have got not idea what they have got hold of."
Cindy Butts, Deputy Chair Metropolitan Police Authority said:
"When I raised this issue with the Commissioner (Sir Ian Blair) I had scores of emails from members of the public who were saying 'thank you so much for raising this issue, I had an incident involving a dog, where a dog actually severed part of my finger, and this is a gentleman who lives in the Islington area, and he was very concerned about the police's response to that crime, and in fact he had said that dog was not on the Dangerous Dogs Act, and he was advised to take out a private prosecution against the owner. So there clearly have been a number of incidents and I think it is about trying to understand the extent of the problem and thinking about a number of ways in which we need to improve either legislation or indeed the way in which people behave as dog owners."
But, strangely, when the programme spoke to Superintendent Simon Ovens, who is in charge of the Met Police's Dangerous Dogs portfolio despite what all of our sources had said, he denied it, saying:
"We have not had any increase whatsoever, in the number of reports of dogs being used to assault people or to be set on people"
When pressed about the number of people who had told the researchers that this was not the case, he said: "It's certainly not reflected in the reported crime figures."
But there are no official statistics recorded which can gauge the real extent of the problem. The Home Office say that there is no information recorded on when or if a dog is used as a tool of crime.
So how big is the problem, and what can the law do? Dog law expert, Trevor Cooper, who sits on a committee looking at potential changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act and possible dog 'ASBOs', outlined the current law and how things could change.
Guests on the programme included:
Cindy Butts - Deputy Chair, Metropolitan Police Authority
Mark Callis - Senior Dog Control Officer, Wandsworth
Trevor Cooper - Solicitor and expert in dog law
Sergeant Chris Allsop - Dog attack victim
Superintendent Simon Ovens - Metropolitan Police, Dangerous Dogs portfolio
Mike Butcher - RSPCA Chief Inspector, Special Operations