In 2009, a rich tapestry of animal welfare advocates, law enforcement officers and city officials joined forces in the wake of tragedy: A 2-year-old pit bull named Phoenix was doused with gasoline and set on fire in West Baltimore.

The case sparked action from then-Mayor Sheila Dixon. She formed a task force that later became the Mayor’s Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission, which was charged with providing guidance and policy recommendations. Throughout the years, the group has included representatives from the city’s state’s attorney’s office, the Humane Society, police and health departments, as well as high-profile members such as District Judge Katie Curran O’Malley.

But more than a decade later, much of the work surrounding animal welfare and abuse prevention in Baltimore has disintegrated.

The commission has not convened since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Police no longer accompany animal enforcement officers in serving administrative warrants in homes, advocates say, and the number of cases referred to the state’s attorney’s office that led to convictions fell by 15% in fiscal year 2021. A police spokesperson said officers provide these services upon request and continue to investigate the cases referred to them.

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Meanwhile, a City Council resolution aimed at scheduling a hearing about animal abuse efforts has not advanced. City Councilmember Phylicia Porter, the resolution’s sponsor, did not respond to requests for comment.

The breakdown underscores a city government struggling with competing priorities, including soaring gun violence, public health crises and declining population numbers. But animal welfare experts say the link between animal abuse cases and other forms of violence is real and should not be ignored.

“We’re not asking to ignore crimes against people. We’re saying this is an important tool in perhaps preventing crimes against people,” said Randall Lockwood, a retired senior vice president at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who was involved in the formation of the task force in Baltimore in 2009. “It would be nice at least if some efforts were made to restart some of the good work that was being done.”

Lockwood said the city’s animal welfare network used to be fairly active, meeting monthly or bimonthly for years. The group, he said, came up with a number of recommendations for the mayor. It also examined what went wrong in the case of Phoenix, whose death did not result in any convictions.

The City Council in 2010 converted the task force into a commission that would be independent of any political changes, he added. But eventually, he said, those efforts “just kind of evaporated.”

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Representatives from Mayor Brandon Scott’s office said they plan to meet with the health department to discuss legislation and the commission. “We should have more information in the coming weeks,” spokesperson Monica Lewis said. Scott previously has served on the commission.

Budget documents for fiscal year 2023 cite the lack of a designated detective or animal abuse prosecutor as the reason behind a decline in the percentage of cases referred to the state’s attorney’s office that resulted in convictions. But Zy Richardson, a spokesperson for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, disagreed.

She said the office has an assistant state’s attorney who prosecutes animal abuse cases and maintains an additional caseload. The prosecutor currently has about 25 cases on her docket related to animal abuse, Richardson said.

“I can’t speak for the detectives, but for the past three years, there’s been a dedicated animal abuse prosecutor for the entire duration of that time,” Richardson said. “There has not been a gap in that role.”

Lindsey Eldridge, a spokesperson for the Baltimore Police Department, said staffing levels have not affected investigations. As of June, she said, the number of cases referred to the state’s attorney’s office were trending to exceed that of the past two years.

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Eldridge said police and the health department have signed a memorandum of understanding earlier this year that enables officers to support animal control’s execution of administrative warrants “in accordance with the laws.” She did not specify if that meant entering homes.

Katie Flory, acting chair of the Mayor’s Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission, said while the Police Department does employ someone who handles animal abuse cases, the officer also responds to other incidents. That spreads the work too thin, she said.

Flory has been serving in an acting capacity since her term as chair of the commission expired in late 2016. She said she could neither speak to why a replacement has not been appointed nor why the city implemented changes in procedure.

She believes the group should be reconstituted, even if it has to be pared down. The commission trained police officers in every district on how to respond and collect evidence in animal abuse cases, ensured agencies were collaborating and brought key decision-makers to the table.

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“It has always been important to me to work with the state’s attorney’s office, animal control and the police to make sure that we are looking at these cases and that we’re communicating with each other. And I do think that COVID has made things extremely hard,” Flory said. “But, in theory, we’re through the pandemic and we need to get back on track.”

Though Flory said she could not comment on why police no longer go into homes to serve administrative warrants in these cases, she does consider that duty an important chain in the link that moves the system forward.

It saddens her, she said, that it dropped on the priority list for police. “Because that, again, says to me that the police are going to put priorities where they think it’s most important, instead of our community as a whole. And animals are part of our community,” Flory said.

Though Baltimore is considered a leader in other animal welfare programs and activities, the city is missing an opportunity to make its mark, said Phil Arkow, coordinator of the National Link Coalition, which works to educate the public about the connection between animal abuse and human violence.

Arkow said the evidence linking animal abuse with other crimes against people — including domestic violence and elder and child abuse — has been well-documented during the last 40 years. More cities, he said, have implemented task forces, tip lines and public awareness campaigns aimed at bringing more animal abuse cases to light.

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“A strong animal cruelty enforcement program in a community offers a powerful opportunity to intervene early,” Arkow said. “Quite often the investigators are the first ones on the scene, and by having a rigorous community-wide program where they are plugged into social services, we can avert more crimes against people.”

Baltimore was among the first to create a commission in the mayor’s office, Arkow said. If that continued, he said, it could have had the potential to serve as a roadmap for other cities.

hallie.miller@thebaltimorebanner.com

dylan.segelbaum@thebaltimorebanner.com