Opposition to Animal Services Changes

Opposition to Animal Services Changes

Some say proposal not sufficiently studied; no one in the audience at 2 town hall meetings spoke in favor of the proposal.

Supervisor Rodney Lusk, Franconia District, Chair of the Public Safety & Security Committee, which heard the initial proposal, attended the town hall “to listen and understand the issue better.”

Supervisor Rodney Lusk, Franconia District, Chair of the Public Safety & Security Committee, which heard the initial proposal, attended the town hall “to listen and understand the issue better.”

    APPO 2nd Lt. K. Prucnal, with Wallace, outside the new Lorton Police Station and Animal Shelter after its opening in October 2023

The Department of Animal Sheltering and the Fairfax County Police Department, hosting two town halls on March 11 and March 13, heard statements and responded to questions from residents on the County’s proposal to eliminate the Animal Protection Police Officer (APPO) unit; to replace the law enforcement officers with civilian Animal Control Officers (ACOs). The new ACOs would come under the management of the Animal Sheltering Department. Fielding questions were Deputy County Executive Tom Arnold; Deputy Police Chief Bob Blakely; police animal services division commander Eric Ivancic; and Director. department of animal sheltering, Reasa Currier. 

County Deputy Executive Tom Arnold, whose office oversees both units, made clear that the change primarily targets the “major challenge of the bifurcated [organization] model,” of handling issues between the two separate units and their missions, animal law enforcement and domestic animal welfare and sheltering. Speaking at the town hall, Arnold prioritized the goal of uniting the units, saying there will be added public services and cost savings may be achieved over time. 

His response to the union’s suggestion of a labor-management committee to resolve conflicts and troubleshoot: “It could work.” But Arnold countered that the need for change was not a labor-management issue. “It is not based on personal conflicts” but on mission conflicts between the units. Arnold further opined that linking services for residents under one organization model is “expected to create better relationships.”

Though the actual disconnects go largely unspecified to the public, several police union representatives point to lack of police unit commander continuity as part of the issue due to the FCPD’s frequent commander rotation. The Shelter director indicated that the once regular meetings between the two divisions after she first came to the Shelter two years ago are no longer held. The Shelter also came to restrict APPOs from use of its Pet Point system, used to track animals in the Shelter; and from physical entry into non-public areas of the Shelter facilities. The director declined to explain the reasons saying, “We are unable to comment on personnel matters.”

Currier indicated a consultant has been hired to develop a mission statement [for the consolidated unit]. The union representative asked, “Why can’t we have the same mission and goals?” Arnold answered that “we could work together but animal services are evolving and ever changing.” He noted the rapidly advancing technology now used in policing, including body cameras and drones. The only technology specifically mentioned for animal services was mobile microchip readers, which could be carried in responding police vehicles, but which the APPO unit does not have. Currier says her repeated request that they be added went without action. The chip readers would allow return of stray animals in the field, without need to bring them to the shelter.

The original consolidation plan called for moving the wildlife management program to Animal Sheltering as well. But people and groups with wildlife concerns voiced continued questions and issues. Not satisfied with Blakely’s assurance “nothing will change,” their questions continued about wildlife handling protocols, including knowledge of wildlife, State laws and local ordinances governing wildlife handling, networking with rehabilitators, and humane euthanasia handling, as Animal Control Officers, not trained Animal Protection Police Officers respond to future calls. 

Renee Grebe, who is active with Nature Forward and EQAC but does not speak for either organization, wrote, “I do not think wildlife-related issues should be handled by the shelter. In general, issues with wildlife (and their solutions) are, no pun intended, wildly different from issues (and their solutions) with domestic animals. I don’t see too much overlap in them.” 

While Blakely has stated there are only two things ACOs cannot do legally as non-law enforcement officers, custodial arrests and search warrant executions, internal police department communications obtained by wildlife advocates and shared with The Connection indicate the department is aware of several related State codes and local ordinances which could restrict ACO actions. 

Dr. Clare Thorp has spoken about loss of networking critical to wildlife response, euthanasia handling, and other concerns.

Rehabilitators say the County has misrepresented comparison reporting and organizational relationships relied on to recommend the change. They say that in a majority of jurisdictions in the Commonwealth, animal services report to police departments, not shelter management, or shelters report to the police departments along with their ACOs. They question ACOs legal ability to use firearms (needed for euthanasia in the field to prevent wildlife suffering) given existing State Codes restricting discharge waivers only to police. 

The county has yet to share protocols and organizational placement for wildlife programs, since they are now not expected to be moved under Animal Sheltering. 

The plan is for ACOs to receive the required three week training program for the ACO position developed by the state, supplemented with additional training, as needed. Also the county says their work will be assisted as needed by others for more complicated calls and investigations. 

Rehabilitators note, although firearms are described as “an important tool for wildlife management”, firearms training is not included in the State ACO training. Lone APPOs now can perform these required duties alone.

The Shelter director listed services intended to keep animals with their families, rather than being surrendered to the shelter. Programs include those, such as behavior training support, assistance with housing, low cost veterinary care, and temporary boarding; all programs aimed at making surrender to the shelter a last resort. Currier said civilian shelter employees can better connect with communities. That, “Sworn law enforcement serving as the face of animal services can act as a barrier to accessing services for some residents.“ 

Police union representatives at the meetings disagreed and spoke of their current work, providing many examples, in which they have assisted residents in need of help to keep their animals, connecting them to available shelter services, and examples of residents seeking out their help. They say this includes allowing owners time to make needed corrections to avoid being charged with violations. 

Immigrant and minority communities are often less trusting of police officers than civilians for a variety of reasons, and this is one of the reasons given for the transition away from APPOs.

Several current APPOs commented that many County statements suggested the proposal is based with a mistaken understanding of APPO work, as a result of failure to involve serving APPOs as stakeholders in developing the proposal. Lack of engagement of stakeholders is a sentiment echoed by the wildlife and conservation groups, as well as the APPO’s union.

Residents attending the town halls included individuals and representatives of groups, such as Audubon of Northern Virginia; licensed wildlife rehabilitators; animal shelter volunteers, past and present; members of the Animal Services Advisory Committee (ASAC), past and present; and those without affiliation; as well as a large contingent of off-duty APPOs, past APPOs, and officers of the SSPBA police union. 

A former Shelter volunteer, Natalie, with financial analyst background, criticized the proposal’s lack of firm personnel and other savings; the increase to four shelter director level positions; and lack of accounting for added costs, including need to support the less well rounded training of ACOs compared to APPOs. 

Arnold replied that the proposal “is not a financial decision.” 

Dr. Larry Jackson, a former member of the police department and the ASAC, warned that the proposal was “a done deal.” He suggested Arnold, who oversees the police department, has pushed acceptance of the proposal without prior engagement of the variety of stakeholders. Jackson noted that there were no decision makers at the head table. The ultimate decision makers are the Board of Supervisors on the Board, which could decide on the proposal as part of FY-25 budget deliberations.

Supervisor Rodney Lusk, of Franconia District, attending the March 13 meeting, said that he “came to listen and understand the issue better,” Lusk added, “I don’t believe this is decided.” While Lusk is the only Supervisor to attend the two March town halls, other Supervisors are taking meetings with individual residents and groups to hear stakeholder input and concerns. 

Bill Beletsky, of Springfield, a dog owner attending without affiliation with an advocacy group, commented after the meeting. “The major issue I heard tonight is a “lack of communication” between the two [units]. The county executive ‘fix’ is to disband animal police, and grow the animal shelter organization. However, there is no mission statement, no effectiveness study, no cost study, no study of required training, nor authority or responsibility proposal for the new ‘enhanced’ animal shelter organization — all are to be determined. Because our county executives can’t resolve operational disputes between the Animal Police and Shelter, they will disband the Police. The real issue, therefore, is a lack of county executive leadership.” 

Questions continued past the one hour scheduled meeting time; no one in the audience spoke in favor of the proposal. The Animal Services Citizens Advisory Committee previously voted 7 to 2 in favor of the proposal at a scheduled meeting this year. 

The final decision of whether or not to implement the proposal lies with the Board of Supervisor, who are expected to consider it as part of the budget process.

For more background, see The Connections previous reporting (“Animal, Wildlife Reorganization Ready for Reorganization?”, March 6, pg 4, 13; and “Animal Protection Police or Animal Control Civilians, Dec. 14, 2023, Springfield, pg 3,11); and the County’s official statements at https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/animalshelter/fairfax-county-animal-services-consolidation-proposal.

For information on providing input on this proposal, or other elements of the advertised budget, see: www.fairfaxcounty.gov/bosclerk/speakers-form