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Pit bull ordinance vote put on hold

July 19, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

Austin Gross of Hagerstown questions why his 50-pound pit bull, Holly, who plays without problem with Gross' children, would be treated differently than other large dogs under a proposed city law.

Hagerstown residents who own pit bulls would have to register them with the Hagerstown Police Department within 60 days or risk losing them under an ordinance endorsed by Police Chief Arthur Smith.

Gross and others will have a chance to speak on the matter during a segment of Tuesday's Hagerstown City Council meeting set aside for citizen's comments.

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The council was scheduled to vote Tuesday to introduce the ordinance but Smith on Friday asked that the item be withdrawn and postponed about one month. Smith wants the council to wait until he can meet with Humane Society of Washington County officials about the issue.

Gross' 2-year-old son's antics, including jumping on Holly, do not provoke her to attack, Gross said. Indeed, the dog cowers when voices are raised, which may be because the dog reportedly was abused before he adopted it, he said.

Gross said that proves his point that what is important is not the dog's breed so much as how it was raised and trained.

Gross said it makes more sense to register all dogs over a certain weight, such as 25 pounds, than to make requirements for a particular breed.

The police chief said pit bulls are bred to be more aggressive than other animals. The proposed ordinance's definition of pit bull and pit bull terrier includes American bulldogs and bull terriers.

"The question is not whether you have a nice pit bull or a mean pit bull but would public safety benefit by more careful regulation of this dog," Smith said. "That is a decision for our elected officials to make."

Under the proposed ordinance, at the close of the 60-day registration period, pit bulls could not legally be brought into Hagerstown. Pit bulls already in the city that are not registered would be illegal.

Residents would be required to pay an annual registration and licensing fee of $50 to keep the regulated dogs.

Smith and Hagerstown City Councilwoman Penny Nigh have been working for more than a year to have the city enact an ordinance governing pit bulls. Action was delayed while the city waited for a presentation from then-Humane Society Executive Director Maria Procopio.

Procopio, who opposed a "breed specific" law, resigned in June without making the presentation.

Hagerstown's proposed law is modeled after similar ones in other U.S. cities and counties, Assistant City Attorney Mark Boyer has said. The law has been tested in court and is legal and functional, he said.

Some opponents of such legislation question how effective and fair it is. They sum up their position with a slogan: "Punish the deed, not the breed."

County Humane Society officials have not commented publicly on the proposal, but the Humane Society of the United States and other organizations opposed such laws, calling them unfair and ineffective.

"Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) is a common first approach that many communities take," the Humane Society of the United States says in a news release. "Thankfully, once research is conducted, most community leaders correctly realize that BSL won't solve the problem they face with dangerous dogs."

Under the proposed law, a dog owner would have to show proof of current liability insurance in the minimum amount of $50,000 for bodily injury or death of any person. Many dog owners may have this coverage under insurance of their home, Smith said.

Anyone violating the ordinance could be found guilty of a municipal infraction and fined up to $1,000 per day under the proposal.

The ordinance would require pit bull owners either to keep the animal indoors or, when outdoors, confined in an enclosed, locked pen with either a top or with all sides at least 6 feet high, or muzzled and kept on a leash.

Smith said the change would make police work less difficult. Police officers sometimes encounter pit bulls, which he called the animal of choice for local drug dealers, when executing search warrants, he said.

Dogs forfeited to the city will be examined to see if they can be given up for adoption, under the proposed ordinance. If not, the dogs may have to be killed, Smith said.

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