Who, age What Where When Last Known Address
Mark Johnson, 39 police dog handler leaves 2 dogs to die in hot car

Nottingham, England

June 30, 2009  
Type of Crime Other Crimes #/Type of animal(s) involved Case Status Next Court Date
    2 German shepherd dogs, 1 7-year-old, 1 18-months Convicted  

A police dog handler accused of leaving his two German shepherds to die in his baking hot car thought the Independent Police Complaints Commission was "out to get him", a court heard.

Constable Mark Johnson said he faced repeated investigations by the IPCC in the years before his dogs, called Jay-Jay and Jet, died in the back of his car.

The 39-year-old was left severely depressed and suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder and had sought help from his bosses, Nottingham magistrates court was told.

On the morning of 30 June 2009, he started doing paperwork at the Nottinghamshire police headquarters in Arnold, just to the north of the city.

His illness meant he forgot that his dogs were still shut in his black Ford Mondeo estate, the court heard.

It was one of the hottest days of the year, with temperatures reaching 29.3C (84.7F).

Jet, aged seven, and 18-month-old Jay-Jay died, possibly within 20 minutes, from heatstroke which would have brought on multiple organ failure.

Johnson, who has served with the force for nearly 18 years, told the court that the complaints, along with the stresses of his job, had left him seriously ill.

"Basically it was to do with the IPCC, that they were out to get me," he said. "Complaint after complaint came in and they were referred to the IPCC when they shouldn't have been. I always felt they were trying to prove a case against me.

"I was emotional, I was breaking down crying. We have this rough, tough image of going out there. We think we are invincible so to have an emotional breakdown we find embarrassing."

The police officer said that he sought help after a "life-threatening incident" in 2007 and was given cognitive behavioural therapy.

The therapy ended last March and, when the IPCC started investigating another complaint, his mental problems became worse.

"I had another complaint against Jet," he said. "This complaint with the IPCC and the force meant that I started catastrophising.  "That meant I thought I would be found guilty, go to court, lose my job and go to prison. This was the reality for me. I was a mess."

The court heard that, after his wife had contacted his sergeant, Johnson was referred back to the force's occupational health therapist and prescribed the antidepressant Citalopram.

However, the drug left him feeling sick and unable to sleep, and he came off it.

Earlier, the court was told that Johnson, who had been a dog handler for seven years, had been unable to use his normal car because the air-conditioning unit was being fixed.

He had found another car, but it had no mats in the dog cages and he had gone inside to look for some.  While there, he was distracted by a police briefing and then started doing paperwork.

He said he believed he had moved the dogs and only realized they were dead when he went to collect them that afternoon.

"I treated the dogs as members of the family and they were loved as such," he said. "I went to the back of my car and found them. I knew they would be dead but I thought, stupidly, they would be there wagging their tails."

When Paul Taylor, prosecuting for the RSPCA, asked Johnson whether he was responsible for the deaths of the two dogs, he replied: "My mental state at the time was causing these problems. I loved those dogs."

The court heard the two dogs suffered "excruciating pain" before they died.

"PC Johnson had always been devoted to animals and his dogs in particular, who would have saved his life or got him out of tricky situations on operations in the past.

"I can find no evidence that he harboured any malice towards his dogs or that he would have wished to harm them, but he made an error which nevertheless had fatal consequences for the animals.  "His failure in this case is an aberration of his normal high standards."

The court heard that it was not until 2.20pm that Johnson went to check on the dogs.

The RSPCA alleges that the police officer – who the court heard had an "exemplary" record of service – unnecessarily confined his dogs "in an environment that was detrimental to their well being". He denies the charge.

Taylor told the court that, because dogs cannot sweat, the two German shepherds would have been panting to try to reduce their body heat.

This would have left them severely dehydrated, and they would eventually have suffered severe kidney damage and cerebral haemorrhage.

Update 2/22/10:  A police dog handler who accidentally left two German shepherds to die of heatstroke in the back of his car on one of the hottest days of last year was found guilty of animal cruelty.

  (Photo courtesy of The Guardian - Police dog handlers pay tribute to the 2 dogs)

PC Mark Johnson of Nottinghamshire police was given a six-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay £2,500 costs after what a district judge called "an extremely difficult case" which reflected poorly on the force's attitude to officers with mental health problems.

Johnson, who was commended in 2008 after arresting a gunman who Jet had bitten, said: "I treated the dogs as members of the family and they were loved as such."

Paul Taylor, prosecuting for the RSPCA, said that although the officer had been devoted to his dogs, they had died in terrible pain owing to his mistake. "His failure in this case is an aberration of his normal high standards," Taylor said. "However, his actions had catastrophic consequences for the two dogs in the car."

District judge Tim Devas described the dogs' deaths as "sad and regrettable", but criticised the police for failing to help an officer struggling with depression. "I feel a police officer has been let down and this is for the benefit of the police: this is a dreadful error of judgment brought about by an illness way before it happened and PC Johnson should have been given more help … I cannot believe that in the 21st century, depression and men crying is so abhorrent to an institution that nothing can be done about it," he said.

"I have no doubt that had PC Johnson received the help he needed then he wouldn't be standing before me here today," said the judge, adding that he was satisfied that the officer had no intention of causing any harm to his animals.  He added: "PC Johnson, I hope you can rebuild your life and career at the end of this."

An assistant chief constable of the Nottinghamshire police, Peter Davies, said dog handlers must now take their animals directly to kennels on arrival at work and that a fob system was being piloted alerting handlers to temperature changes inside vehicles.


RSPCA Guardian