Guest column: Animal cruelty, crime and politics

Guest column: Animal cruelty, crime and politics

This year, Hoosiers will elect dozens of mayors and thousands of municipal officers, taking the same top concerns to the polls as voters in surrounding states: inflation, abortion, and crime. Unlike abortion and inflation, which remain largely outside local control, crime is unavoidably local, which is why crime predominates many mayoral races.

Historically, political jockeying on both sides has politicized crime with no real consensus on how to reduce it. Republicans accuse Democrats of pro-crime, anti-victim’ policies, while Democrats accuse Republicans of increasing violence through the proliferation of guns.

Such political posturing is a poor substitute for understanding and addressing the root causes of crime.

Research into the causes of violent crime reveals a complex matrix of causation that varies by person. Poverty, education, and social conditioning are obviously linked to crime, but so are fluctuations in brain chemistry including serotonin and testosterone levels.

Individual variables that aren’t easily measured, including impulse control, situational stress, and maturity levels make predicting violent crime even more difficult. The factors that lead some individuals to violence, but not others, often prove too complicated for policy makers to untangle.

But what if, among thousands of variables, one single factor stood alone that could reliably predict violence against people?

That stand alone predictive factor is animal cruelty and neglect. After decades of research, federal law enforcement experts now recognize that animal cruelty is a more reliable predictor of violent crime against people than a defendant’s personal profile, family, or criminal history, including weapon convictions, arson, or even prior homicides.

Researchers agree that animal neglect and abuse is a predictive risk factor, marker, and precursor of violent crime. Criminologists have proved a direct link (88% correlation) between cruelty to animals and violence toward people. Seventy-five percent of women who are severely beaten by their partners report that their partners abused their pet first. Worse, animal neglect and cruelty cause a domino effect that increases violent crime in part because adolescents who see it internalize the cruelty and are more likely to become violent adults. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency

Prevention reports that youth who witness and engage in animal cruelty are five times more likely to engage in violent crimes against people.

On the flip side, researchers have discovered that hardened criminals can be softened, and taught personal resilience to improve their own life prospects, simply by teaching them compassion toward animals.

In 2021, the FBI and US Department of Justice issued a bulletin encouraging local law enforcement officials to understand this phenomenon. According to the FBI, “animal cruelty is a predictor of current and future violence, including crimes of assault, rape, murder, arson, domestic violence, and sexual abuse of children.”

The challenge is how to translate federal criminal justice research into local policy.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reports that only one-fifth of law enforcement officers receive animal cruelty training. Less than half are familiar with animal cruelty laws, and only one-third know the penalties of those laws.

The FBI and National Sheriffs Association would like to change that. In addition to training regular police officers on anti-cruelty laws, they recommend uniform reporting on cruelty and neglect. The FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System collects detailed case information on animal cruelty incidents from participating law enforcement agencies; their definition of cruelty includes simple/gross neglect such as failure to provide adequate shelter, food, water, and veterinary care to sick or injured animals.

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To reduce violent crime, they urge local officials to cross pollinate animal control departments and law enforcement by training police officers how to look for and detect animal cruelty. At minimum, they recommend that local mayors and police chiefs establish police routine protocols to check on animal welfare when responding to other calls.

Anyone who has ever loved a dog knows how intelligent they are. Cognition researchers report that dogs are as intelligent as children; they understand spatial relations, and can learn the meaning of up to 200 words.

For people who understand this, seeing a dog who lives on a chain is jarring. Animals, like children, are politically voiceless and vulnerable to man’s worst instincts.

They have no union, and there’s no financial profit in anti-cruelty. Although it is illegal to keep a dog on a chain 24 hours a day in most Indiana cities, enforcement varies by location. Cruelty remains rampant in economically distressed areas, despite the fact that it costs nothing to bring a dog indoors, and accredited law enforcement training is free. (Disclaimer: I have been involved in anti-cruelty efforts in Gary, Indiana for years.)

Although some people will always remain indifferent to the suffering of animals, nearly everyone cares about violent crime. Perhaps understanding the cruelty-crime connection will lead them to speak up, if not to help the voiceless, to help themselves.

So before you cast your vote for mayor, council member, or prosecutor, speak to your preferred candidate. If they don’t understand the cruelty-crime connection, and can’t figure out how to increase anti-cruelty enforcement, maybe it’s time to consider another candidate.

Sabrina Haake is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.

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