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FBI uses animal abuse data to study correlation to crimes against humans

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

LOGAN — Animal abuse is not just a crime of violence against dogs, cats and other domestic animals; it’s also believed to be a key precursor activity to crimes of violence against humans — so much so that the FBI has begun collecting animal cruelty crime data for use in investigating such crimes as child abuse, sexual assault and homicide.

“There’s a direct correlation between animal abuse and crimes against people,” said Nelson Ferry, program analyst for the FBI’s Clarksburg-based Crime Statistics Management Unit.

In January, the FBI started including animal cruelty crime data in its National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS, which also tracks hate crimes and violent crimes like arson, rape and murder. Demographic information including age, gender and previous arrests entered into NIBRS by officers arresting animal cruelty offenders will help FBI analysts determine just how strong the link is between animal cruelty and crimes of violence against people.

While the animal abuse data is being sought primarily to help police identify suspects that may be most prone to committing acts of violence against people, “we want to help the animals with this information, too,” Ferry said.

The NIBRS database allows investigators to identify and map hot spots for puppy mills, dog fighting and cockfighting across the nation, and keep track of the names and whereabouts of people known to be involved in them.

Ferry was taking part in a day-long training session here last week designed to help law enforcement officers better investigate puppy mills, animal cruelty complaints and dog-fighting and cockfighting rings. The event was sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States and hosted by the Logan County Sheriff’s Department, and drew more than 20 attendees, including sheriff’s deputies and animal control officers from Logan, Mingo and Lincoln counties, two veterinarians and several animal shelter workers.

A background that includes animal abuse “is a key predictor for criminal behavior that can include sexual assault, domestic violence — even arson and murder,” said Janette Reever, deputy manager for animal fighting response for the Humane Society of the United States. “In so many instances, investigators find that a person involved in domestic violence or child abuse is also involved in animal abuse. Among women victims of domestic violence, 84 percent of them reported that their abusers also hurt animals.”

Reever, who lives in Hampshire County, urged deputies attending the training session to investigate anonymous reports of animal abuse, since they may involve relatives or neighbors of the abuser who fear retribution, and to “take all complaints seriously. If reported violations are not investigated, public trust falls and people won’t bother to report new violations.”

Logan County Sheriff Sonya Porter said her takeaways from the workshop included being able to identify paraphernalia used in dogfighting and cockfighting with which she was previously unfamiliar; how to identify bite wounds on dogs that were the result of competitive fighting for the benefit of humans, rather than from run-ins with neighborhood canines, and how to properly photograph injured animals for documentation purposes during abuse or cruelty trials.

“I learned a lot,” Porter said. “It was a good program.”

Heather Severt, state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said that recent additions to West Virginia’s animal cruelty laws should give law enforcement personnel more tools to use in fighting animal abuse. One new law makes it illegal for any person to attend animal fighting ventures or to bring someone under age 18 to such events. Another makes it illegal for anyone to place bets during animal fighting events.

First- and second-offense violations of the laws are considered misdemeanors and carry fines ranging from $300 to $2,000 and possible jail terms of up to one year. Third-offense violators of either new law are subject to felony charges, with fines ranging from $2,500 to $5,000 and possible imprisonment of one to five years.

The Logan training session was the fifth and final such event held in the state this year by the Humane Society of the United States.

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Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-56169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.