Officers learning news skills in attempt to bust dog fighting rings

ASPCA class a permanent part of police training

It was not your typical lecture, and the audience was not just students.

What was learned in a classroom at the police training center in Northwest Baltimore is a unique skill set meant to break an underground ring of silence, pain and a hellish existence for the best friend of man.

"It happens everywhere, all across the United States, every weekend. It happens everywhere.”

Those are the words of Kyle Held with the ASPCA. He’s part of a team that travels the area training animal control units and police departments on what they need to know to break up the vicious practice of dog fighting.

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The Baltimore session was the first of that type for BPD, but it is a class now becoming a permanent part of police training.

"It's more of an awareness level to introduce some of the things involved in dog fighting as far as equipment and investigative tools for them [officers] to be aware of," Held said.

Officers learn the tools of the tragic trade and know what to look for while in homes and neighborhoods investigating other crimes.

Tools that otherwise would never garner a second look, like bite sticks, weighted collars, treadmills and cages are now being taught to be almost as important as a shell casing or fingerprint.

"Things that you look for, they may not be part of a crime. But, if you look at them and then investigate a little further, you might see that it is part of dog fighting," said K-9 officer Patrick Huter.

Huter went through the first class. He says what he learned alongside colleagues at animal control was invaluable.

"I don't believe that more people are doing it. It is just being brought to light, and we are starting to look into them and realizing there are more cases that need to be investigated."

Officer Huter is correct.

According to the Baltimore City State's Attorney’s office, the number of people charged with animal abuse and dog fighting in Baltimore has doubled in the last four years going from just 22 people in 2010 to 45 in 2013.

It’s a trend State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein says is very much on purpose.

"We've really focused on these cases for a number of reasons -- certainly the harm caused to animals.  They are certainly very vulnerable victims. I mean, that is obvious, but also there is a strong correlation between people who abuse animals, use them in dog fighting and other violent criminal activity."

Almost five times more cases Bernstein says, which is all the more reason why convictions are key, although a much harder part of the equation.

Dog fighting cases rarely have witnesses and certainly don't have victim testimony. A case is almost entirely evidence based.

"Traps, cages, treadmills that they train them on -- they even have stands for breeding purposes, special weights they put on the dogs to try to build up their strength. Scarring that you see on the animals… So, these are all the kinds of evidence based prosecutions that we mentioned in terms of building the case," Bernstein said.

But like in most crimes, convictions can be a mixed bag.

In 2010, the city had nine followed by a spike of 24 in 2011. In the last two years, those numbers have slowed.

However, the cases overall are getting stronger Bernstein says, punctuated by the exact kind of training Baltimore City is now offering its officers through the ASPCA -- not just knowing what to look for now, but how to secure evidence and knowing the resources that can help make charges stick.

"We've seen a rise in a lot of their cases after training like this.  A lot of them feel more comfortable in what they are doing after trainings like this. So yeah, I think it is very effective," Held said.