NJ trooper shoots dog after rescue called off: Advocates seek cruelty charges
LAWRENCE (Cumberland) — A state trooper and an animal control officer for this township are under fire after the trooper shot an abandoned dog near the side of a road in June.
The single round fired by the officer’s handgun into the dog's "chest area" failed to immediately kill the injured white-and-brown pit bull, which walked off bleeding into the woods and was never found.
Animal advocates have called on state authorities to investigate and charge the trooper and animal control officer with animal cruelty and other violations after the officials’ reports and the trooper’s bodycam video raised questions about whether their actions were appropriate or legal.
On Trooper E. E. Jefferis’ bodycam recording of the June 8 incident on Millville Cedarville Road, Animal Control Officer Ronald Sutton appears to tell the trooper to concoct a rationale for shooting the dog, which had a visible injury from an embedded collar and had been eluding efforts to capture it for at least two days.
“It came towards you, it came at me. That’s all,” Sutton says.
The trooper responds by chuckling.
“Not with her watching,” Jefferis says, referring to a woman who had tried to rescue the dog and was insisting that Sutton obtain a trap.
The woman tells the trooper that the dog hasn't "shown any signs of aggression whatsoever," but Jefferis is eager for the woman to leave.
"She keeps hanging around here," the trooper tells Sutton. “If she would get the hell out of here, we would be done with this thing."
In reports later filed by the two officials, Sutton claims that the dog had “lunged” at the trooper before he opened fire. The trooper’s own report, however, does not say that the dog tried to attack but that he it had become “more aggressive, and began advancing towards us.”
There is no video of the shooting because Jefferis turned off his bodycam before attempting to approach the dog.
A spokesman for the State Police this week defended the trooper’s decision to turn off the camera.
“Based on the circumstances surrounding this incident, the body worn camera was not required to remain activated,” State Police Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Flynn said Friday in an email.
Collene Freda-Wronko, of the group Reformers–Advocates for Animal Shelter Change in NJ, called this “the most appalling police shooting of a dog I've ever seen" and said the aftermath has been a “conspiracy.”
“I have never received a copy of body cam footage where the officer turned it off until the call was complete. That has included three videos of dogs being shot,” she said Friday in an email.
Sutton, who also is a politician and running as a Republican for a seat on the Commercial Township Committee, defended himself and the trooper.
“Not every dog you can catch,” Sutton said Thursday in an interview.
Sutton said he had spent more than two hours trying to catch the dog, which kept walking across the road. Sutton said the dog almost caused three traffic accidents.
Sutton did not try to use either of the two large dog traps that he has access to. He insisted in an interview that a trap would not have worked because the dog was refusing to eat, having ignored ham and other food left by volunteer rescuers.
Sutton said the dog probably had a grave infection from a tight collar that appears to have been pulled out after becoming in-grown in its neck. In the video, Sutton is heard telling the trooper that a vet would probably put down the dog anyway, a contention he repeated in an interview.
“This dog could not be saved,” Sutton said, adding that the animal advocates “need a job.”
“This is crazy and so blown out of proportion. It really is very sickening,” Sutton said. “They got to let it go.”
On the day of the incident, Freda-Wronko attempted to stop the trooper from shooting the dog after she was informed by one of the women on scene about what was happening. Freda-Wronko called the State Police barracks in Port Norris.
“Is there any way we can stop this dog from being shot?” she can be heard asking the duty sergeant in a recording of the call. “I want to know why law enforcement is going to shoot a perfectly good animal.”
“The trooper is on scene and he is going to handle the investigation,” the sergeant says before hanging up.
In a July 23 complaint filed with the state Department of Law & Public Safety, Freda-Wronko's group calls for Sutton and Jeffris to be investigated.
“An embedded collar is not reason enough to shoot an animal. Animals are found frequently with embedded collars. The collar is removed by a Veterinarian, cleaned, and surgically sutured. The animal is then placed on a regimen of antibiotics to stop infections,” the complaint says, pointing out that the state animal code does not consider shooting an acceptable form of euthanasia.
A spokesman for the State Police did not respond to New Jersey 101.5’s question about the agency’s policies regarding shooting animals.
Flynn said troopers had been dispatched three times over the course of 24 hours to try to catch the dog “because it was creating dangerous traffic conditions by walking in the roadway, causing motorists to abruptly brake.
“Based on the totality of the circumstances, which include numerous unsuccessful attempts to capture the animal, the dangerous traffic conditions created by its presence in the roadway, and it aggressively advancing toward the trooper and the animal control officer during the incident, Tpr. Jefferis discharged one round from his service weapon, striking the dog,” Flynn said.
The New Jersey Certified Animal Control Officers Association has criticized the handling of this case.
“At no time would the Association support his efforts in apprehending an animal within the manner viewed with the volume of resources available in this day and age.,” the group said in a written statement last month. “After review of the video circulating on social media involving Animal Control Officer Ronald Sutton, the NJCACOA Board of members feel the need to express our disappointment in the manner that ACO Sutton attempted to apprehend the dog.”
Sutton has had a contentious history with animal advocates and state health regulators.
The state Department of Health in 2007 investigated a shelter owned by Sutton for euthanizing an injured dog before providing it with veterinary care as required by law.
The Cumberland County shelter was closed in 2017 after animal advocates criticized it for having one of the worst kill rates in the state.