Chicago Dog Pound: Rex, Lies And Videotape
The Better Government Association recently obtained grisly surveillance video showing a dog being choked by at least one Chicago animal care worker trying to bring it under control at the city pound.
The dog died soon thereafter, and the employee and several others were disciplined. (If you haven’t seen the footage, here’s the link.)
For anyone critical of Animal Care and Control (ACC) based on the video’s images – which showcase the latest foul-up with the taxpayer-supported agency, overseen by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – consider the cynical way City Hall handled things when we came calling:
- On May 19, 2014, we asked for disciplinary records tied to the March 15, 2014, dog-choking incident, as well as video, citing the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, which guarantees public access to public records, including video. Our interest: Get to the bottom of what happened. This was an agency with many problems, and the Emanuel administration showed little apparent interest in fixing them.
- Under FOIA, the city was supposed to turn over records within five business days – 10 at the most. Instead, the city took an extra week’s extension, and then acted as if we had given permission for the extra cushion. “Thank you for allowing the City the extra time to comply with your request,” the city’s FOIA officer wrote us.
- On June 10, 2014, the city turned over paperwork related to the dog choking – showing four workers were being disciplined – but refused to turn over the video, violating FOIA.
- On June 12, 2014, the BGA sued the city in Cook County Circuit Court for the video, arguing it was supposed to be turned over under FOIA.
- In denying the video’s release, City Hall unabashedly struck a protective tone over the family that had given up the dog to the pound because of the animal’s reported aggressiveness. Among other things, the city argued in its FOIA denial that “it would be highly emotionally distressing” for the family to see the video publicized. No matter that at least one city employee likely led directly to the dog’s demise.
Related Article: Video: Dog Choked, Dragged At City Pound
- In refusing to turn over the footage, the city also lashed out at us in its written FOIA denial, suggesting the BGA only wanted the video so we could post “salacious content” on our web site to “sensationalize the incident, resulting in more publicity ... and higher click-throughs.” The city ignored that we’d been covering the pound vigorously for several years, and had a documented history of taking an interest in animal welfare, employee competency and mismanagement.
- The city also indicated that it couldn’t release the video because it would be too “costly” – likely $3,000 to $7,000 – to fuzz out the faces of employees on the footage. City Hall argued the city “does not have the capability to blur the faces of the involved ACC employees,” so “would have to contract an outside vendor.” However, when the city ultimately turned over the video, faces indeed were blurred, and a city official admitted to us that City Hall didn’t use an outside vendor – instead, working with city government’s in-house television operation to do the job.
- On Dec. 21, 2015, City Hall posted a news release (and publicized an online job description) announcing an “expansive” search to replace the ACC executive director who retired a couple of months earlier. City Hall made a point of saying in the postings that it was collaborating with animal welfare groups and wanted to find a real professional in the field – ignoring that under Emanuel at least one top ACC official was installed without any animal welfare experience. City officials wouldn’t answer questions about whether the news release was publicized that day to temper the next day’s release of the dog video to the BGA.
- On Dec. 22, 2015, Christmas week, the Emanuel administration released the dog-choking video to us in response to our lawsuit – but city officials edited in written messages at the beginning and end of the footage to say how diligent the city had been in disciplining the workers involved, and that ACC “has since provided additional training to staff and enhanced protocols to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”
- On Dec. 29, 2015, the BGA published a story about the video and released it on our web site. There was immediate outcry, with calls for more professionalism and care at the city pound.
- On Dec. 30, 2015, pets blogger Steve Dale posted a write-up entitled, “Video of Dog at Chicago Animal Control May Not Be What Some Assume,” in which he said, “I saw this video over a week ago.” He later told us that the city contacted him to get his “impression” of the video, and that he relayed he couldn’t do so without seeing it, so they sent it to him. Asked whether the city leaked him the video to try to “spin” the story, Dale said, “You could say it was a PR move . . . I’d say yeah but it could have backfired” if he ended up hammering city officials, who “didn’t have any input” on what was written. Either way, his blog post didn’t criticize the city very much. Rather it ripped the BGA for pursuing the video, saying, “Releasing of the video, I believe is about politics – about finding a way to ‘get to’ the Mayor. I truly don’t see how releasing the video helps the animals.”
- On Jan. 8, 2016, the city acknowledged flagging other animal welfare advocates about the video ahead of time and making a copy of the tape available to them. According to the city, Dale “was not shown the video before it was released to the BGA. In December Mr. Dale contacted the City on a couple of occasions interested in learning more about the onboarding of the future [ACC] director. During this time he learned about the pending release of the video and made a request to view the video. [ACC] contacted Mr. Dale the day before the video was released to notify him of the impending release as a courtesy, as he has been an advocate for Chicago’s animals and for [ACC] for years. Because the City had been having ongoing discussions with both animal welfare leaders and advocates, it was appropriate to also inform them of the video that would be made public. As a result, the groups requested a copy of the video be provided to them. The City was within its right to share the video concurrent with the release of the video to the BGA.”
So what does all of this show?
Emanuel’s people – as they’ve done with the Chicago Police Department, Chicago Public Schools and other city agencies – will go to seemingly any length to try to control public information, the way it’s released and how it’s cast.
They should never wonder why trust is in such short supply these days.