Did You Know that the City of Dallas is Failing to Fill Open Records Requests Against State Law?
How would you like to be the tax paying citizen that was attacked and bitten by a dog and then was unable to get the name of the dog’s owners from the City so that you could recover your expenses, as allowed by law? Even after filing a complaint to the State Attorney General’s office, DAS will not provide the requested information. This citizen paid a cash deposit of $155 to get copies of the records and has received nothing to date. Additionally, when this person stood to speak during the public comments section of a recent Animal Advisory Commission, somehow 5 minutes of his 8 minutes of comments are missing from the final archived video posted on the City’s website. Meet Charlie Howell, he represents a thing, a piece of our system, that is broken in our government and at DAS; a very, very, real thing.
Let’s start by saying we all have a right to certain information through the Public Information Records Act. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s go back to the beginning of Charlie’s story.
In August of 2015, Charlie Howell, his wife, his 14 years old small breed dog, Sophie, and his large shepherd mix, Boudreaux, were attack by a loose pit bull while on their daily walk. Charlie was injured severely enough that 911 was called for police and medical support. He had to be taken to the ER. For the next week, he was in and out of doctor’s offices and the ER. Despite immediately being prescribed antibiotics, infection immediately set into his wounds. He was in jeopardy of loosing his hand if the infection could not be controlled. In addition to his wound, things went down hill quickly as he and his wife, Laura, tried to follow up with the City on understanding what could be done about the loose dog to keep it from hurting someone else.
Mr. Howell recently took the opportunity to speak his frustration with the system at an Animal Advisory Commission meeting. As he told the Commission, “We want to share details about our story, because it reveals additional “gaps” and “opportunities” that were not a part of the city’s findings from the investigation into the fatal attack against Ms. Antoinette Brown. We hope that BCG and the Commission will consider this information in formulating recommendations that will reverse the increasing trend in numbers of dog attacks occurring throughout the city.”
Charlie told the City about how the day before he was attacked it was likely that the loose dog that attacked him was returned to its owner after two other incidents that day. Howell said, ”On August 17, 2015, one of our neighbors was trapped in her car by an aggressive, intact male dog (which we now know was dog #A904454) near her residence in the 300 block of S Edgefield Avenue. DAS was contacted and 311 records reveal that on that day two loose animal service requests were closed near 300 S Edgefield as “Resolved – Information Provided.” Later that evening a dog attack-in-progress was reported two blocks away at Greiner Middle School. The service request was closed as “Resolved – Problem Corrected by City.”
“Resolved – Problem Corrected by City” that’s a common notation found on 311 calls although nothing meaningful has been done to resolve the problem. It’s a notation that this group has repeatedly talked to the City about changing, but to no avail.
Mr. Howell goes on to say that on the day of the attack, “the same dog #A904454 attacked our leashed dog Boudreaux. The loose dog was an intact male wearing no collar, no tags, nor any other sign of ownership. I was bitten 4-times trying to separate the dogfight, and a 5th time as I pinned the dog on the ground to prevent another attack on my wife or our dogs. If the dog had been wearing a collar, I could have separated the dogs without injury or with lesser injury, as I have successfully done in the past.
Boudreaux is more lover than fighter, but he came out unscathed. This was the ninth time that Boudreaux has been attacked while on leash by a loose dog or dogs in and around our neighborhood, and we have successfully averted several other potential dogfights.” Here is a good place to note that Mr. Howell’s wife, Laura, had written the City in 2014 asking them to deal with the dangerous loose dog issues plaguing our neighborhoods. There was no meaningful response from the City to her family’s plea for help.
Now is also a good time to point out that many of the Animal Advisory Commissioners and Jody Jones have let their point of view be know publicly; they do not feel as though picking up loose dogs would have saved Antoinette Brown from being mauled by a pack of loose dogs. We couldn’t disagree more. Here are Charlie’s thoughts on that, “During the last Animal Commission meeting, we heard Commissioner Bonnelly declare that even if the city had cleared all the dogs from the streets of Dallas on the night before Antoinette Brown was brutally killed that the attack against her would not have been prevented. Our case is different, because DAS could have prevented the attack by picking up only one dog. DAS currently has the authority to impound any animal posing a threat to public health or safety.”
Mr. Howell also experienced many of the communications issue that this group has long documented and reported to the City. Here’s Charlie’s experience with DAS communication, “During that week, Laura had several conversations with DAS staff. At one point, DAS asked what color was the dog that attacked our “pack”, leaving her with grave uncertainty about whether or not DAS was holding the “right” dog in rabies quarantine. She asked DAS several times for the A# of the dog being held, but received no answer until after she contacted Councilman Scott Griggs office on Friday August 21, 2015. Later that afternoon Mr. Kris Swekard, Director of Code Compliance, contacted her with an identifying A#. On the following day, a friend confirmed that DAS was holding dog #A904454.”
Let’s take a minute to talk about rabies control. It is one of Dallas Animal Services core functions. Dogs are put into rabies quarantine to protect the victim. It is very important to carefully watch the symptoms of the quarantined dog because once a human is diagnosed with rabies, they are 100% going to die. With that in mind, dogs are checked at 5 days and again at 10 days for any signs or symptoms. In many cases, DAS doesn’t not yet have the dog in custody at the critical 5 day mark. Laura and Charlie had great cause to be alarmed if DAS did not have the correct dog in custody. As it turns out they did, but it took a neighbor physically going to DAS to confirm that they had the correct dog.
Charlie goes on to say that, “When Laura called to inquire about the process for submitting a Dangerous Dog Affidavit, she was repeatedly told something like…
[Well ma’am, we pretty much have to give the dog back to the owner.] (Paraphrased)
DAS repeated the same line several times. This might work with a lot of people, but Laura is a career public servant who understands that public servants follow laws, regulations and processes.
After she persisted with questions, DAS finally directed her to the DAS web page and provided instructions about how to find the dangerous dog laws and process for filing a Dangerous Dog Affidavit.
A Google search later revealed that the City of Dallas has a form letter “CCS-FRM-174 Dangerous Dog Request for Affidavit” with Laurietta Stewart-Childress, Hearing Officer, as the signatory (on the secret 4eval.com website). We did not receive a signed copy of the letter, so it is unclear under what special circumstances Code Compliance might send such a letter.”
Mr. Howell goes on to point out that “DAS’ evasiveness about the process and lack of any formal notification was inconsistent with procedures which call for staff to “Attempt to obtain affidavit 7.2.2 (record).” See http://4eval.com/Dallas/CCS/Procedures/CCS-PRO-017%20Dangerous%20Dog-111214.pdf This probably explains why the city holds only about 20 Dangerous Dog hearings per year, whereas DPD records reflect that on average more than one person per day is attacked by a dog or pack of dogs (and DPD records represent only a subset of all attacks).”
Charlie and Laura completed and submitted the Dangerous Dog Affidavit within the 10-day period, in spite of making two (2) trips to the emergency room and five (5) other doctor visits for Charlie while also caring for Laura’s ailing Father.
Charlie and Laura then made a few suggestions and proposed that, “The city could pursue changes in either existing processes or the law to take the burden of filing Dangerous Dog Affidavits off of dog attack victims. DPD had already classified the incident as an Attack by a Dangerous Dog, so why is a separate affidavit needed to trigger a requirement for a hearing?” But no one has answered that question. We have posed that question to Jody Jones before back in December and were given no response then either.
Here’s the rub for the victim, “As described in the police report, the person who called in the complaint on the previous day arrived and identified the dog. DAS staff later confirmed that the same dog had been the subject of previous complaints. DAS staff described having several conversations with the dog’s owner during the issuance of citations for noncompliance with dog laws, and regarding the Dangerous Dog hearing required in response to their submittal of the Affidavit. To date, DAS has not provided any documentation supporting their claims (see open records request below).”
Charlie also talked about the loss due to this dog bite incident. He outlined his expenses and his insurance companies expenses to date and then went on to say “I am unable to place a dollar value on the emotional impact the attack had on Laura. While trying to wrangle our dogs, she had watched as I was bitten several times, but she had to leave me behind to get herself and our two dogs to safety. Later that day, she missed two medical appointments with her Dad and Brother, so that she could take me to the emergency room. Her Dad died from a heart attack 13-days later.”
Did he mention that his wife Laura was undergoing intense cancer treatments and had just had her lymph nodes removed and he was afraid that if the dog got a hold of her, she would die? Well, it’s all true.
He goes on to suggest, “I have heard that DAS stopped picking up dogs to save taxpayers money… If DAS wants to conduct a cost-benefit analysis for getting dangerous dogs off the streets they need to consider all direct and in-direct costs, in addition to the increased cost of insurance premiums that all insured citizens pay as more and more people are attacked by dogs on the streets of Dallas.”
Charlie goes on to say, “We are interested in seeking reimbursement for our losses and restitution for the costs of medical care paid by my insurance provider, in addition to holding the dog owner accountable. On January 22, 2016, we submitted an open records request for documentation of the dog’s ownership and details about DAS actions prior to and after the attack.
We paid a deposit of $155, as requested by Code Compliance on February 3, 2016 for half of the estimated cost of the response. After waiting about 2.5 months, we requested a status update on April 18, 2016. To date, we have received no response from anyone from the City of Dallas, i.e., no records, no explanations and no date for when we might receive a response.
On May 12, 2016, we filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s office regarding the city’s failure to comply with requirements of the TPIA, and on July 27, 2016 we engaged an attorney to help get the information we need to attempt to recoup our losses and hold the dog owner accountable.”
Charlie points out that, “DAS could facilitate holding dog owners accountable by providing ownership records to all dog attack victims without making them jump through the hoops of filing an open records request and stonewalling the process through their failure to respond in a timely manner.
Rather than regarding these types of requests as “ambulance chaser” requests, DAS could view them as opportunities to get assistance in holding irresponsible dog owners accountable.” Now there’s a novel idea.
In conclusion, he stated, “City of Dallas officials need to recognize that they are not above laws requiring a *timely* response to valid public information requests — they are public servants paid by taxpayers to follow laws, regulations and processes. So, last, I must ask… Whose desk is our open records request sitting on today?”
Of course, DAS was not able to answer that question. Seven (7) months after filing an open records request to obtain the dog owner’s information, Charlie’s family has engaged a lawyer to facilitate obtaining the information they need to move the ball forward on their insurance claims.
What a sad state of affairs our City and our Animal Services Department must be in; so sad that they will not help or support law abiding, tax paying citizens with their legal rights to information.
On August 17, 2015, DAS failed to apply existing laws to take an aggressive, intact, un-tagged and un-collared male stray dog off the streets of Dallas; although, the dog had been the subject of numerous loose animal complaints and an attack-in-progress call. On August 18, 2015, the same dog attacked our “pack” and bit me 5-times.
The attack on August 18, 2015 was the ninth time that our leashed dog Boudreaux has been attacked by a loose dog or dogs in and around our neighborhood in District 1, and we have successfully averted several other potential attacks.
DAS claimed that the dog was “loose owned”; however, DAS could not or would not provide us with information about the dog’s owner or responsible party unless we submitted a formal open records request (however, see #8 and #9 below).
DAS asked my wife Laura what color was the dog that attacked our “pack”, i.e., the dog that was tied to a sign pole (by a Dallas Fire and Rescue paramedic) before DAS arrived to pick it up. This left Laura with uncertainty about whether DAS had quarantined the actual dog involved in our attack.
DAS could not or would not provide an A# identifying the dog being held in quarantine for three days until Laura’s call into Councilman Scott Grigg’s office triggered a direct response from Mr. Kris Swekard, Director of Code Compliance.
During their initial contact, DAS mentioned the option and implications of submitting a Dangerous Dog Affidavit; however, when Laura called later to inquire about the process, DAS was very evasive, repeatedly insisting that the dog must be returned to the owner after the quarantine period. The city provided NO formal notification about the process.
DAS claimed to have issued multiple citations to the dog’s owner for noncompliance with dog laws; although, DAS has provided no documentation supporting these claims (see #8 and #9).
Code Compliance has not responded to our January 22, 2016 Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) request for records after we paid a deposit of $155 on February 3, 2016; nor, has the anyone from the City of Dallas responded to our request for a status update sent on April 18, 2016.
On May 12, 2016, Charlie and Laura filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s office regarding the city’s failure to respond to our TPIA request. And, on July 27, 2016 they engaged an attorney to help get the information they need to attempt to recoup their losses and hold the dog owner accountable. Below is a copy of their complaint to the State Attorney General’s office. Included in the complaint are all written communications with the City of Dallas and with the Attorney General’s office. Numerous phone calls were also made.
Here are some things to talk to your City Council and Mayor about:
– You expect ORR compliance from your civil servants.
– You expect DAS could facilitate holding dog owners accountable by providing ownership records to all dog attack victims without making them jump through the hoops of filing an open records request and stonewalling the process through their failure to respond in a timely manner.
– You expect the City and DAS leadership to be pro-active and not reactive regarding citizen’s safety. There is no reason for the City of Dallas to wait until after a fatal dog attack to investigate the factors leading to an attack. The adequacy and appropriateness of the City of Dallas Animal Service efforts to both prevent and respond to attacks is important. The City can lean a lot from examining the factors leading to non-fatal attacks as well as fatal attacks. This data is not being mined nor examined at this point in time.
-You expect the City to pick up loose dogs.
See you at an upcoming Town hall budget meeting!