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'Justice for Bubs': Recent officer-involved dog shooting sparks transparency and accountability debate at the SLO Police Department 

click to enlarge ON A MISSION Nick Regalia and Riley Manford lost their dog, Bubbers, in an officer-involved shooting last September. The incident propelled them and other community members to campaign for more transparency from the SLO Police Department.

Photo Courtesy Of Nick Regalia And Riley Manford

ON A MISSION Nick Regalia and Riley Manford lost their dog, Bubbers, in an officer-involved shooting last September. The incident propelled them and other community members to campaign for more transparency from the SLO Police Department.

Three chalky, circular bullet marks form a straight line down the narrow concrete driveway of Nick Regalia and Riley Manford's rental home on Santa Rosa Street in San Luis Obispo.

Spaced a few feet apart, the dots outline the path that their dog, Bubbers, ran as he fled a SLO police officer who shot it during a deadly encounter this past September.

click to enlarge IN MOURNING Nick Regalia and Riley Manford, San Luis Obispo residents, hold up a photo of their dog Bubbers outside their home. A police officer shot and killed it in a fatal encounter in their driveway on Sept. 26, 2019. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • IN MOURNING Nick Regalia and Riley Manford, San Luis Obispo residents, hold up a photo of their dog Bubbers outside their home. A police officer shot and killed it in a fatal encounter in their driveway on Sept. 26, 2019.

"This is the fatal shot, through the scrotum," says 33-year-old Regalia, who's down on one knee on Jan. 2, pointing at the first indentation. He gazes up at the remaining impact marks on the driveway.

"He's running away," Regalia says. "As he's running away, as he's going away, [the officer] shoots him in the back. If you're fearing for your life, you don't shoot a dog that's running away from you. Then he shoots a third time. And this is the one that ricocheted."

That third bullet left a small divot in a tree trunk up ahead. The couple says no one ever found it. Farther up the driveway, just below the couple's front door, a dark splotch colors the concrete. No amount of bleach and scrubbing has made it go away.

"That's blood right there," Regalia says. "This is all blood and feces."

Markings and stains are all that remain of the day that Regalia and Manford lost their family dog of seven years. They're also all of the evidence that the public has to understand what exactly transpired at the 600 block of Santa Rosa Street around 11 a.m. on Sept. 26.

The SLO Police Department has denied all public requests for the body camera footage of the officer who fired the shots, Joshua Walsh, as well as other incident documents, citing an active internal investigation and department policy not to release records that aren't mandatory to disclose under the state Public Records Act. The decision has raised questions about how local agencies are interpreting new California transparency laws meant to expand the public's access to police officer investigative records.

SLO police were at Regalia and Manford's house that morning responding to a burglary call. Someone who witnessed a person jumping out of a broken window called the police. That person turned out to be Manford, who was fixing her own broken window.

According to the SLO police narrative, as two officers walked up the driveway, an untethered pit bull-boxer mix started barking and growling at them. While the officers tried to determine what was going on, the dog became aggressive and "charged" down the driveway at Walsh, according to the official account. Fearing for his personal safety, Walsh shot it. The department is now reviewing the incident to determine if Walsh's conduct violated any laws or city policies.

Regalia and Manford—who witnessed the shooting in their driveway—dispute the police's version of events. They admit that their dog barked and approached Walsh, but they say that it wasn't about to attack, and it had no history of violence. They tried to tell the officers this and alert them that no burglary was taking place, but they claim that Walsh escalated the situation by quickly drawing his weapon and backpedaling while his partner acted calmer.

"When the SWAT team comes on the property, he's going to bark," Regalia says of the confrontation. "There's so many other tools to use before you pull out your Glock and start shooting. The mailman has Mace, and they deal with dogs on an everyday basis. They don't have a weapon."

At the moment that Walsh pulled the trigger, Manford, 27, was about 5 feet from him, she said, frozen as he had just ordered her to secure the dog. After the three shots, Manford attests to overhearing a third officer on the sidewalk say: "Really, Josh?"

Glancing at a two-unit, single-story rental that runs up against the side of the driveway, Manford says she feels fortunate that the officer's shots didn't kill anyone other than her dog.

"It could've ricocheted into someone's head. There are windows there. There's people here," she says. "If I wouldn't have hesitated and went forward, I'm pretty sure he would've shot me."

By 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 26, police had swarmed the property, which is just a half-block away from the police station. Officers both in uniform and street clothes maneuvered around the driveway, by then blanketed in yellow tape. Detectives took photos, jotted down notes, and talked among themselves.

Regalia wasn't there anymore—he and Bubbers were racing to an animal hospital. After five hours and several thousand dollars' worth of emergency surgery, the couple followed vets' recommendation and had Bubbers put down.

"I was just like livid," Regalia recalls. "I load him up in Riley's car, and [the police] are not doing anything. They're just standing around. There's two bikes here, and I'm like, 'Hey, move the bikes.' They just shoot the dog, and then they're just trying to do an investigation without letting me out. [The dog] is throwing up and shitting. And I'm just bloody. And they're just acting like it's normal."

The September shooting triggered a swell of public outrage throughout the city and county—just a few months after Police Chief Deanna Cantrell faced criticism locally in July when she lost her firearm after leaving it behind in a restaurant bathroom.

Their experience caused Regalia and Manford to embark on a campaign that they say is about bringing more transparency and accountability to the SLO Police Department.

"I can't change what happened," Regalia says. "So I'm trying to make sure it doesn't happen to someone else."

#JusticeForBubs

About 20 people are lined up along the sidewalk outside SLO City Hall on Dec. 3 holding signs that read, "Accountability for SLO Police," "Justice for Bubs," "Is that body cam for looks?" and "Dogs lives matter."

As traffic moves across Palm Street at evening rush hour, some drivers honk their horns in support. A few pedestrians stop to ask questions. One passing cyclist scolds them for protesting animal abuse and not human abuse, referencing inmate deaths at the SLO County Jail.

The assortment of protesters joining Regalia and Manford on the night of a City Council meeting represents an eclectic mix of friends and acquaintances who share a common cause.

"It started out with Bubs, and it's turned into an accountability and transparency issue; that's basically what it boils down to," Regalia says.

In the days and weeks after the shooting, Regalia and Manford received an outpouring of support from friends, neighbors, customers, and strangers who expressed outrage about what happened. It was almost overwhelming at first.

The couple runs a mobile hot dog food stand, Zen Dog, that's a late night hit at McCarthy's Irish Pub and a job that keeps them constantly connected to the community. Regalia, who raised Bubs from puppyhood, says he had to leave the area for a period in order to process the experience, finding that going on with everyday life, returning home to blood stains and bullet marks, and answering nightly questions about it was too much.

"I was trying to just go along like nothing happened," Regalia says. "I was just going crazy."

"The night it happened we had to go to work," Manford says. "We're not made of money. We have to make rent."

Once the couple finally felt grounded again, they began to appreciate how their experience resonated with people. As of press time, a change.org petition calling for Officer Walsh's firing has 3,114 signatures. A friend's tweet about the incident picked up 1,700 likes and 1,000 retweets. A GoFundMe page to recoup Bubbers' vet bills has raised more than $2,300. Justice For Bubs social media pages have hundreds of followers.

"That's been the most awesome thing, just the support from a community of people we don't know," Regalia says.

One of the people they've met along the way is Maddi Depetro, an Oceano resident and student at Allan Hancock College. When Depetro read about the incident in the newspaper and saw a photo of Bubbers, she said, it was like looking at her own dog. For Depetro, the incident raises important questions about breed stereotypes, use-of-force policies, and police transparency.

"I was tearing up reading it," Depetro said. "SLO County as a whole, we're all dog people. ... It's not right. They weren't doing anything to warrant the police being at their home. They were just minding their own business. It literally could've been anybody. I feel like they shouldn't have to fight it alone."

That sense of togetherness keeps Regalia and Manford motivated to carry on their protest, they say. In their public statements to the city and police department, they've demanded that the department release the incident body camera footage; that it fire Officer Walsh for his conduct; and that it adopt officer/animal training programs to prevent future killings.

"It's such a bigger community issue. It just comes down to change," Regalia says.

Untrained

According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, police dog shootings are an all too common occurrence in America. Between 20 and 30 dogs are killed every day by police officers throughout the country—totaling thousands per year.

click to enlarge TRUST SLO Police Chief Deanna Cantrell faced a wave of scrutiny last July when she left her handgun in the bathroom of El Pollo Loco Restaurant. "I'm a human being," she told New Times. - SCREENSHOT COURTESY OF SLO POLICE DEPARTMENT
  • Screenshot Courtesy Of Slo Police Department
  • TRUST SLO Police Chief Deanna Cantrell faced a wave of scrutiny last July when she left her handgun in the bathroom of El Pollo Loco Restaurant. "I'm a human being," she told New Times.

It's an issue gaining increasing national attention, and one that SLO Police Chief Cantrell told New Times she knows that police agencies will have to do more to curb. Most departments, she said, including SLO's, don't require or provide any formal animal training for their officers.

"We really do not, as a profession, get that kind of training," Cantrell said in her office on Jan. 8. "It's shocking that we don't."

As a pit bull owner herself, Cantrell said she felt empathy for Regalia and Manford's situation.

"I cannot fathom what [they] must be going through. That whole event was tragic," said Cantrell, who's been SLO's police chief since 2016.

After the shooting, Cantrell said she had all her department employees watch a two-hour Postal Service webinar on dog encounters. She also ordered more dog snares (her force has just one), and will "continue to look at" other training options.

But while Cantrell acknowledged her officers' general lack of animal training, she stopped short of passing judgment on Officer Walsh's conduct in the incident. Walsh's use of force is currently under internal investigation, and he's on administrative reassignment until it's complete.

Amid a broader defense of an officer's right to protect him or herself when endangered, Cantrell described Bubbers as having been "very aggressively coming at" Walsh before he fired at it. Just like the dog owners' side of the story, it's a description that only body camera footage can verify.

"It's hard to watch," Cantrell said of the video, "and contradicts what they [Regalia and Manford] have been saying publicly."

Fight for footage

As the protestors wrap up their demonstration on Dec. 3, four SLO police officers stand in a huddle near City Hall. Chief Cantrell is among them.

click to enlarge PROTESTING Nick Regalia (center right) and Riley Manford (center left) protest their dog's killing outside SLO City Hall on Dec. 3. They're demanding that the city release the body camera footage of the officer who shot it, and that he lose his badge as a consequence. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • PROTESTING Nick Regalia (center right) and Riley Manford (center left) protest their dog's killing outside SLO City Hall on Dec. 3. They're demanding that the city release the body camera footage of the officer who shot it, and that he lose his badge as a consequence.

Cantrell and Regalia find their way to one another and open a dialogue, which a bystander videotapes.

"I am sorry for what happened," Cantrell says to Regalia. "I would be probably feeling everything that you are should it have happened to my own dog. So I'm sorry for that."

"I'm here to change some stuff," Regalia responds. He then asks why the city has refused to release the body camera footage of the incident.

"We don't normally release video we're not required to," Cantrell says. "But I am interested in releasing it, or at minimum letting you and your partner come in and look at it."

"No, the public needs to see it," Regalia shoots back.

Last year, state lawmakers waged this very battle in Sacramento over the public's right to see police officer personnel records, like body cam footage, a debate that resulted in the passage of Senate Bill 1421 and Assembly Bill 748.

The laws, described as landmark legislation for police transparency in California, opened up for the first time internal investigative files related to officer-involved shootings; use-of-force incidents that caused death or bodily harm; and cases where an officer committed sexual assault or perjury.

While the laws are lauded as steps forward for police accountability, they don't encompass all use-of-force incidents. The city of SLO doesn't consider the Sept. 26 officer-involved shooting to fall under the legislation since the victim was a dog and the laws only require disclosure in shootings involving human beings.

"Even if the law doesn't require the release of the footage, a life is a life," argued Depetro, the couple's friend from Oceano. "I feel like in order to build a good relationship with the community, it's something that kind of needs to be shown."

However, since the city's existing policy is not to disclose any law enforcement records it's not legally required to release, SLO is claiming that it's staying the course by denying the footage.

"For a variety of reasons, including privacy for the people who are inadvertently captured in some of the most difficult moments of their lives, we do not routinely waive those exemptions," SLO City Attorney Christine Dietrick said during the Dec. 3 City Council meeting, responding to Regalia's demand for the video's release.

To Regalia, Manford, and others in their camp, withholding the video clashes with the spirit of the state's reforms and feels like an attempt to shield the department from scrutiny and accountability.

"The body cams are to hold accountable the public and the police," Regalia says. "If [footage is released] only when it's convenient for the department, I have a real problem with that."

Keeper of public trust

In an internal SLO Police Department email dated Oct. 2, 2019, Dispatch Supervisor Mark Anselmi wrote to Communications Manager Christine Steeb to share his thoughts on the officer-involved shooting that occurred the week prior.

click to enlarge DEADLY FORCE SLO police officers and investigators stand around Regalia and Manford's driveway, minutes after one of their officers fired three rounds at a dog, which they say charged at him on Sept. 26. - PHOTO BY PETER JOHNSON
  • Photo By Peter Johnson
  • DEADLY FORCE SLO police officers and investigators stand around Regalia and Manford's driveway, minutes after one of their officers fired three rounds at a dog, which they say charged at him on Sept. 26.

"Josh is on leave but apparently feels justified in his actions," Anselmi wrote at 11:19 a.m. "I thought shooting the dog would probably be okay but firing three rounds in such close proximity to other officers and civilians will be the part that comes back to haunt Josh. ... I don't think any good will come of this."

Nearly four months later, what does ultimately come of the incident remains in Chief Cantrell's hands. Cantrell said she has followed department protocol for any officer-involved shooting—opening an internal investigation that then gets reviewed by a Use of Force Review Board. After the board's findings come in, Cantrell makes the final call on whether disciplinary action is warranted.

Potential consequences for Walsh could range from a reprimand to termination. What gets decided won't be disclosed but is based on the investigation, what policies and laws apply, the officer's past conduct, and any precedent that exists in the department or state. The SLO Police Department policy on "destruction of animals" authorizes their shooting when an animal "reasonably appears to pose a threat to human safety and alternative methods are not reasonably available or would likely be ineffective."

Cantrell emphasized that she takes seriously her responsibility to hold her officers to a high standard of conduct.

"The last thing we want is a bad police officer working for us," Cantrell said. "It means absolutely everything. Without the trust of the public, we have nothing."

Some community members' trust in Cantrell has wavered in the last six months. Earlier last year, in July, Cantrell left her semi-automatic pistol unattended in an El Pollo Loco bathroom, and it was taken home by an adult patron just before a minor entered the restroom. The department's ensuing hunt for her weapon involved a search of a couple's home who they believed to be suspects. That search didn't turn up the gun, but it resulted in the couple's arrest for child endangerment.

SLO police officers believed at the time that they had a right to search the home without a warrant because a court database showed that the father was on probation—it was actually his brother who was on probation. To the department and Cantrell's critics, the series of events showcased a police agency abusing its powers and facing little accountability for mistakes. Cantrell received a two-day pay reduction from the city as a consequence for misplacing her gun, which Regalia called "a joke" in front of the City Council on Dec. 3.

Jason Dufurrena, the public defender for Cheyne Orndoff, the father in the child endangerment case, said the chief's gun search "reads like a flow chart of errors by government actors," from the courts to the police department. He said Orndoff had tried unsuccessfully to get SLO County Superior Court to correct the database, and that his client held physical proof that it was wrong, but SLO police officers allegedly refused to look at it.

"To an ordinary person, these acts communicate: Don't expect your constitutional rights to mean anything; [and] the government and police can be the only group making mistakes," Dufurrena said in an emailed statement. "That is a scary premise to anyone, regardless of what your other values or interests are."

Cantrell told New Times that she looks forward to the day when evidence is presented in court on the conditions of the Orndoff house, assuming it's admissible. That legal fight remains ongoing. She's confident that the arrests were more than justified.

"That will all come out," Cantrell said. "The two little girls are the most important thing."

Addressing her lost weapon, Cantrell said it was a "terrible" mistake that she owned up to with integrity.

"I'm a human being," she said. "I'm a police chief—it doesn't make me infallible."

While the incidents of the past year have shaken some residents' confidence in Cantrell, others feel differently.

Resident and activist Leola Dublin Macmillan, who's worked closely with Cantrell as a member of the SLO Police Department's Police and Community Together initiative, said the recent controversies haven't changed her opinion of the chief.

As a black woman living in an overwhelmingly white community, Macmillan said she feels safer in the city with Cantrell at the helm, as she's watched her work "really hard to make sure that everyone in this county has a seat the table." When looking at the entirety of Cantrell's record, Macmillan feels that a lot of the heat coming her way is overblown and out of touch with the bigger public safety issues in SLO County.

"She has a solid moral compass, and at a time when you can't say that about all our leadership, locally or nationally," Macmillan said. "I'm not aware of anything that makes me question her transparency, her fit, and her competence, at all."

Finding resolution

After the police shooting in their driveway, Regalia and Manford refurnished and rearranged their entire rental house—an attempt to cleanse themselves of a day they try to forget. The couple thought about moving at first, but they have financial limitations, like any SLO County residents living paycheck to paycheck.

"It's been a rollercoaster," Regalia says.

click to enlarge JUSTICE FOR BUBS Demonstrators protesting the SLO Police Department stand at the corner of Santa Rosa and Monterey streets on Jan. 14. They chanted, "SLOPD we want the body cam! SLOPD is not above the law!" - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • JUSTICE FOR BUBS Demonstrators protesting the SLO Police Department stand at the corner of Santa Rosa and Monterey streets on Jan. 14. They chanted, "SLOPD we want the body cam! SLOPD is not above the law!"

On Jan. 14, Regalia and Manford held another Justice For Bubs protest outside City Hall and the SLO County Courthouse before a SLO City Council meeting. Several months after the incident that took their dog's life, they still feel like their voices are falling on deaf ears inside these intitutions, that their demands can't penetrate the protections built around the police and government.

"I just want some closure," Regalia says. "I want to spread his ashes and have some closure, and we haven't gotten anything. We're just waiting. How long does it take to investigate yourself?" Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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