Mark Hayward's City Matters: Lost dog leads activist to a brush with the law
If anyone embodies the spirit of community policing that Police Chief David Mara advocates for Manchester, Cheryl Mitchell does.
She was one of the first Queen City residents to start a neighborhood watch group in 2006, in response to the shooting of Police Officer Michael Briggs (who incidentally was shot just outside her back door). Each year on Oct. 16, Mitchell erects a memorial for Briggs beside her Lake Avenue house.
She's gone through the nine-week Citizen's Police Academy. She's worked for years to clean up the Adam Curtis skateboard park. And murals grace a couple of dozen garage doors in the center city, thanks to her effort to channel the artistic impulses of graffiti taggers into a more acceptable endeavor.
But last week, Mitchell stood eyeball to eyeball with the city police and an animal control officer and was threatened with arrest.
In her arms was a lost, pint-sized dog that she wanted to lodge until its owner showed up and claimed it.
No, insisted the animal control officer, it was his job to take the dog across town to the Manchester Animal Shelter.
Surrender the trembling dog, Neal Vogler told Mitchell, or she would be arrested, Mitchell recalled. Arrested and charged with theft of lost or mislaid property.
"He said 'I can charge you with this, and you can go to jail.' I said 'Really? Are you serious? This is bull----.' I was so mad," Mitchell said.
Police acknowledge the confrontation took place. Vogler's job is to take care of strays and lost dogs. That means bringing them to the animal shelter.
"I get where she's coming from, honestly," said police spokesman Lt. Maureen Tessier. "But you have to appreciate that the city employs these animal control officers for a reason."
The police don't know if a volunteer dogsitter will neglect or abuse an animal. And police can't be sending owners of lost dogs to houses of strangers they aren't sure of.
"A dog is almost like property," Tessier said. "We can't let somebody else hold onto someone's property."
Mitchell, who turned 58 this week, works the photo machine at a Bedford pharmacy. She lives in a two-family at the corner of Lake Avenue and Lincoln Street. Her son lives upstairs. She owns five dogs - two Chihuahua types, a pitbull, a pitbull mix and a boxer.
Mitchell said she often comes across lost dogs. If she knows where they live, she'll deliver them to their owner. In the past, she has used the neighborhood approach toward finding lost dog owners. Hold the dog. Call the cops and describe the dog. Give them your name and address. Have the cops send the worried owner to Mitchell.
That's what she thought would happen last Wednesday. She also told the dispatcher, she said, that she would drive the dog to the shelter if no one picked it up in 24 hours. Within 15 minutes, Vogler was knocking at her door. When Mitchell said she didn't want to give up the dog, three police officers joined him.
Mitchell said she didn't want the dog to undergo the stress of a ride to the animal shelter in a crate, and then being caged at the shelter while other animals are barking, howling and hissing.
She also can't believe police would charge her with theft. "If I was going to steal a dog, why would I call the police station and give them my phone number?" If she hadn't been scheduled to work, Mitchell said, she would have made police arrest her.
Mitchell said the police who came were courteous and sympathetic, but they told her she would either have to give up the dog or get arrested.
"I don't have anything really bad to say about the Police Department," Mitchell said. "It's sad the dog catcher had to waste their time coming up here."
The owner picked up the dog later that day at the shelter, avoiding a $25 overnight charge. Tessier said the animal control office checks to see if a dog's license is current and whether there have been previous infractions before it decides whether to issue a citation.
Tessier acknowledged Mitchell's participation in Crimewatch and advocacy role in her neighborhood. "We appreciate Cheryl's support," Tessier said.
In the past, police have allowed city residents to hold onto lost dogs until an owner is located, Tessier said. Then, the animal control office was understaffed. Now, it has two full-time officers, and their job is to take care of lost animals, Tessier said.
"If you have a loose dog, you call the animal control; you don't call Cheryl Mitchell," Tessier said.
Perhaps not so. Mitchell, who insists she wants no more dogs, said she's not going to ignore a lost dog.
Next time she finds a wayward pooch, she said, she just won't let Manchester police know about it.
Mark Hayward's City Matters appears in Thursday editions of the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.