San Francisco Dog Court's Future Uncertain

Bill Herndon dog court.jpg
Sergeant Bill Herndon and friend
These may be the dog days of San Francisco's dog court.

Sergeant Bill Herndon had been the head of the police department's vicious and dangerous dog unit, and oversaw the court system adjudicating San Francisco's misbehaving mongrels for nearly 20 years. Yet, earlier this month, he was abruptly reassigned to patrol duties at Park Station.

Herndon tells SF Weekly the call came as an absolute shock. Animal Care and Control head Rebecca Katz was also floored by Herndon's abrupt reassignment, which clouds the future of dog court after today -- possibly Herndon's last day deciding the fate of the city's wayward dogs.

Since 1993, Herndon has presided over dog court, ordering the city's dog owners to leash their best friends, declaring dogs "vicious and dangerous," and, at times, making the decision to euthanize a violent animal. The court became more widely known following the 2001 mauling death of Diane Whipple; in the time before and since Herndon has picked up a reputation as a fair and patient judge in the pioneering system. You may remember him from his appearance on Animal Cops, by the way.

Earlier this month, Herndon got a call from Captain Teresa Barrett; he says he was told there was a shortage of sergeants and he was needed at Park Station, stat. Herndon, 57, is a 33 and a half-year veteran of the police department, and was set to retire within a year. But with his abrupt reassignment, no one knows who -- if anyone -- will be presiding over dog court starting tomorrow.

Herndon, by the way, has not yet reported to duty at Park Station. After 33 years and change in the department, he's amassed a bit of vacation time. He was only working dog court today because he and Katz asked permission to finish up his held-over cases.

The sergeant told SF Weekly he has no desire to return to patrol duty and will probably retire if asked to do so. He refused to speculate on any personal or political machinations that may have led to this abrupt move beyond Barrett's professed motive regarding a sergeant shortage.

Messages for Barrett and Chief George Gascon have not yet been returned.

How San Francisco will deal with its canine criminals down the road is unclear...
While a replacing Herndon would have been a necessity within a year anyway, his abrupt reassignment exacerbates the situation. Katz told SF Weekly that Barrett assured her that the dog court program will not be discontinued and Herndon will be replaced -- but both Katz and Herndon have no idea who will do so, or when.

Topping everything off, the SFPD potentially pulled the plug on its dog court right at a time when news of dogs mauling and killing people began to hit the news once again.

"They couldn't have picked a worse time professionally, given what happened in Contra Costa and here in Golden Gate Park," said Katz.

 Herndon, meanwhile, is proud of the dog court he's overseen for years, and wants to see it continue -- even if he's not around.

"I think it has done a lot of good. Although we deal with dogs, the main thing we deal with is the people -- the people are the ones controlling or not controlling the dogs," he says. "If they lose me, I hope someone replaces me. I would like this to continue. It's good for dogs and good for people."

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