A couple of years ago, two Political Science professors from West Virginia University, Susan Hunter and Richard Brisbin Jr, wrote a paper entitled: Panic Policy Making: Canine Breed Bans in Canada and the United States.
I was excited to read the study, as I got a preview of some of the information when Ms. Hunter presented at the KC Dog Advocates Canine Legislation Conference back in 2006.
The paper discusses breed specific legislation, and how it is mostly a symbolic reaction to a crisis, shifts the injury away from the owner and onto the dogs. Also, they claim that breed bans occur in a relatively unusual political context.
"Unlike adoption of some palliatives for risks, breed bans appear in circumstances marked by great emotionalism and limited inquiry into the sources and probability of a risk and limited consideration of altternative policies. Especially the alternatives suggested by animal rights and animal welfare advocates appear to be ignored. Therefore, to address how dog breed bans have come about, this paper proposes a framework to explain panic policy making."
According to their paper, the authors propose that breed bans usually happen in a very limited time frame and without the normal intrustion of new information and without the accumulation of increasing conflict or negative feedback about the policy (which usually occurs over time, which is limited).
For the purpose of the paper, they define Panic Policy Making as:
"The speedy creation of new laws and regulatins or new duties for governmental and private institutions in a situation of sudden, unreasoning and excessive fear and anger."
In the paper, they note 5 different stages of the panic policy-making:
Recognition: Usually a Panic Policy involves a sudden event like a crisis or disaster (often involving a serious injury) that has drawn little attention from interest groups or experts. Sometimes this event happens as a quasi-natural occurance, such as a death from a dog attack or the poisoning of a source of water. Or it can be a manufactured occurance such as a new danger created by new policy entrepreneurs who are new in office. Individuals will then take the event or intrustion as a cause for alarm because it signals severe, catastrophic or dreadful consequences.
Construction & Interpretation of the event = fear, anxiety and panic. Panic is a self-interested action determined by an emotion-laden calcution of probabilities. This then follows with contagion - Although panic is an individualized reaction to an injurious event, if it is shared with others, it becomes contagion. Contagion leads to an emotional assessment of alternatives as the public will often overestimate the rist of infrequent events and underestimate the frequency of common events. Thus, individuals will like alternatives shaped by an affective prediction of panic from the future dangers and anticipation of the worst possible future.
Rationalization - political leaders react to the anxiety and panic by rationalizing a public policy that can confine or eliminate that fear. Often this comes after the media spreads the collective fear to a mass audience. This opens up the 'policy window' quite suddenly. Unlike other states of moral panic, where lobbying or changes in polical party opens the policy window, in the case of breed bans, they propose that the MEDIA opens the policy window. In these cases, the media can provide very vivid images and reactions, can amplify those reactions and reinforce these amplifications. They can then create an information cascade in which an event is repeated to the point where a rational follower will unconditionally imitate them without regard to information from other sources.
Choice - Panic policy making features limited participation, elite control and groupthink in the formulation of a response to the catastrophe -- often using heuristics and "common knowledge" instead of facts and limiting the scope of alternative policies. Panic policymaking is thus at the extreme end of a continuum of the amount of alternatives used to formulate the new policy
The final piece is implementation -- because of the speed in processing the legislation, there is limited calculation, planning and assessment on how a new policy will actually be implemented, there is neglect in calculating the sunk costs. Because the initial panic is cooled by the new policy, the panic eventually fades to where it was before (non-existent) and the media moves onto other issues.
The remainder of the Panic Policy paper then focuses demonstrating how panic policy making exists within the world of breed bans. They interviewed politicians and those involved in enacting breed bans throughout Canada and the United States and provided a lot of examples of how most of these cities passed bans quickly in reaction to an attack or "paranoia regarding certain breeds." One chart within the paper notes that over 40% of people who supported breed bans said they did because of media reports. Around 15% said because of community panic (often also caused by media reports), 13% "all of the above" -- so including media reports. So media reporting is a major influencer in causing people to support breed bans.
The paper then goes into detailed case studies, including details in Ontario (where more than 40 experts and animal welfare organizations testified against the proposal but were all ignored), New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, the Kansas City metropolitan area (and I can personally vouge for the accuracy of their claims for KC and the media cascade was actually the impetous for the creation of this blog) and Wheeling, WV.
The paper is a really good read and overview of public policy decision-making -- and you can read the 51 page article in its entirety here.
Panic Policy-Making in its current form
I've been interested in the Panic Policy-making idea after I witnessed it in action in my own area - and was further confirmed when a former Denver City Council member referred to the passing of Denver's breed ban as occuring during "The Hysteria of the Moment". Denver, of course, is still struggling with the enforcement of their breed ban.
Ohio, the only state with any type of breed specific law, is talking about repealing their breed-specific law after their state legislature tacked the breed specific languange onto another bill back in 1987 just one day after the death of a man who was killed in a dog attack.
Meanwhile, the panic-policy-making continues.
Lincoln Park, MI is currently looking at a breed ban on 'pit bulls' following a fatal attack of a 5 year old boy involving 2 dogs -- neither of which resembled 'pit bull' type dogs.
In Waxhaw, NC, just a week after a girl was fatally attacked by two 'pit bulls', the community is considering new dog legislation. Despite the fact that the dogs' owner was recently released from jail, and had been talked to by police about allowing his dogs to roam at large, and despite the fact that the parents of the girl had been reported on "three or four occassions" as not supervising their child, and despite the fact that Waxhaw has no animal control department (in spite of a rapidly growing population, the city quickly jumped to possible new laws as a solution to the attack.
Often times, the very fact that some cities have placed bans on particular breeds of dogs is used as a reinforcement that such bans are either effective legislation or well-thought-out legislation. However, when you look the circumstances that led up to the passing of this legislation - and the often hurried approach to passing the legislation such as is panic policy making, it becomes very clear that these breed bans are most often the result of emotional, panic-driven decisions vs well-thought-out and well crafted laws. It makes these laws take on a whole new meaning.
Meanwhile, when cities actually take the time to really study a solution, and listen to the experts in their community on the topic, they nearly always come out with a policy that focuses on reckless owners and on a dog's behavior, not breed.
If we are to make improvements to the way p0licy is handled in this country, we must put an end to the panic policy-making that rushes to quick decisions to put an end to civic panic - and instead, focuses on meeting with experts to explore all of the possibilities and effectiveness of ordinances that really do improve public safety. Knowledge and understanding how panic policy-making works is critical to ending the cycle.