Animal Writes
© sm
From 12 January 2003 Issue

A Nightmare in Tennessee
By Greg Lawson - [email protected] 

On January 9th, the Tennessee Highway Patrol released the patrol car video showing the tragic events which befell the James Smoak family of Saluda, N.C. on January 1st. Soon, through CNN and other news outlets, the whole country became aware of the unnecessary killing of the Smoak’s dog, Patton, by a Cookeville, Tennessee, policeman.

James Smoak was traveling with his wife Pamela, their 17-year-old son, Brandon and two dogs, Cassie and Patton. On the road back to N.C. from Nashville, they had stopped for gas and James left his wallet on the hood of his station wagon. When the wallet fell off and scattered $400 in small bills across I-40, a passing motorist called the Highway Patrol stating that it looked suspicious and gave a description of the car and its license plate number. Dispatchers at the THP erroneously determined that a robbery had taken place even though no robbery had been reported. A “be on the lookout” alert for a robbery suspect was broadcast.

THP Troopers spotted the Smoak’s vehicle and called Cookeville police to assist them in a “felony stop.” One by one, James, Pamela and Brandon were ordered out of the car, handcuffed and placed in a kneeling position by the side of the road. The police videotape shows one of the officers looking into the car’s open door and saying that there were dogs inside. Both James and Pamela pleaded several times that the officers close the car door so the dogs wouldn’t get out, but their requests were ignored.

Three minutes into the arrest, Patton, a mixed breed bulldog, left the car and approached Cookeville officer Eric Hall who shot it in the head with his shotgun. The police camera recorded the cries of anguish of the Smoak family as their beloved pet was killed in front of them. It was later determined that no robbery had taken place and the family was released.

In his official report, Officer Hall wrote that he thought Patton was a pit bull and that it “charged toward me growling (sic) in an aggressive manner.” Martha Armstrong, senior vice president for companion animals for the Humane Society of the United States had a different opinion after viewing the videotape. "When you see a dog approaching with its head up, ears up and tail wagging, this should be an indication that this is a friendly animal."

The Cookeville Police Department conducted an internal investigation and found that its officers, who were providing backup for the Highway Patrol, ''performed their duties according to training and policy,'' according to spokesman Capt. Nathan Honeycutt. If this is so, then the training is inadequate. Martha Armstrong believes all police agencies need more training in how to tell the difference between an aggressive and a non-aggressive animal. It is obvious that they also need more training in how to deal with companion animals in suspect’s vehicles.

By leaving the car door open in spite of family’s pleas to close it, and even after having seen the dogs inside, the officers demonstrated a callous disregard for the lives of the animals. They also showed a disregard for the safety of the passing motorists who could have been involved in an accident had the dogs ran into traffic. How much training overcomes ineptitude?

The Smoaks have indicated that they plan to initiate legal action against both the Cookeville Police and the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

Our hearts go out to the Smoak family and we hope they will recover from the terrible events of January 1st. We also hope that this tragedy will result in improved police procedures by law enforcement agencies across the country when dealing with companion animals. Surely, non-lethal techniques can be developed for such situations.

Something else we should all learn from this - traveling with a companion animal involves a certain amount of risk. Animals should be kept inside carriers, tied or otherwise restrained during travel to protect them in case of accidents or felony stops by inept police. Loose animals inside vehicles also present the risk of interfering with the proper operation of the vehicle.

Please remember your animals’ safety when you travel.

For news stories about the incident in Cookeville….

If after learning more you want to write letters you can contact....

THP District Six Headquarters
Attention: Captain Randy Hoover
P.O. Box 826
1291 Bunker Hill Rd
Cookeville, Tenn. 38501
Phone: (931) 528-8496
Email: [email protected] (

Cookeville Police Department
10 East Broad Street
Cookeville, TN 38501
Phone: (931) 526-2125

Cookeville Mayor Charles Womack
City of Cookeville
45 East Broad Street
Cookeville, TN 38501
Phone: 931-520-5241, 931-526-9591
Email: [email protected] (

Go on to My Foster Dog is Beautiful by Martha O'connor
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