Homeless Man Distraught After CHP Shoots Service Dog
By Joe Eskenazi Tue., Dec. 13 2011 at 2:00 PM

A homeless San Francisco man is struggling to go on after his beloved service dog died in a hail of gunfire fired by a California Highway Patrol officer.

It’s hard to say Steven Coffman, 42, is looking for answers. He’s too torn up to ask many questions. On the morning of Dec. 7, he left his homeless encampment beneath a freeway offramp on Selby and Evans to attend a General Assistance meeting with 2-year-old boxer mix Knucklehead in tow. Coffman says he has a note from a doctor permitting him to bring the dog just about everywhere as she helped him overcome anxiety and depression. He left that note, however, in Knucklehead’s service animal vest — which he could not find. Unable to talk his way onto public transportation, Coffman left his dog with friends back at the encampment.

What happened next isn’t entirely clear. All that’s certain is the outcome. Animal Control came and retrieved the bullet-riddled dog before he returned. All Coffman has left of her, he says, are the shell casings from the shots that killed her.

Mark Devlin, who also lives beneath the freeway, says Knucklehead and two other dogs — Charlie and Sugar — ran past him not 10 minutes after Coffman departed. Blocked by a concrete pillar, Devlin didn’t see what happened next. But he could hear it.

“Without any kind of warning, there were shots. I was shocked and yelled ‘No, no, no!’” The dogs ran back toward Devlin. “Sugar and Knucklehead were kind of tangled up and tumbling. I thought they were both shot. Charlie ran past them. Sugar and Knucklehead both fell, but Sugar got up. Knucklehead laid down and died.”

​Devlin said many police and CHP cars and personnel were in the area; after a while, he says, “people in suits” showed up and talked to the officers on the scene. “One guy was talking about some procedures when a dog is a threat and when it’s not.”

Just who pulled the trigger is not entirely certain. Animal Control says the report describing the 54-pound charging dog was left by a California Highway Patrol officer. San Francisco Police Officers at Bayview Station also said a CHP officer shot the dog. But no documentation of the Dec. 7 incident came up when we contacted the CHP. Agency spokesman Officer Tony Tam has not yet returned messages.

“There wasn’t a mean bone in that dog’s body,” Coffman said between bouts of weeping. “Now, for the life of me, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

He and others describe Knucklehead as an exceedingly jolly dog who still hadn’t outgrown her friendly puppy stage.

This is not a new experience for Coffman. In 1992, he says, cops shot dead his prior dog. That animal, however, was a Rottweiler who wasn’t entirely social. This, he says, is different.

The behavior of his dogs has changed along with his own behavior, Coffman claims. “I have an extensive criminal history so it’s hard to get a job. Because I ain’t been able to work, I used to do a lot of crime — I’d sell weed. I did a lot of time for possession and sales of marijuana. Maybe petty theft here or there.”

But not for two years, he says. Not since he was handed a seven-week-old puppy. “That dog was keeping me out of prison. She kept me out of trouble. I didn’t want to end up back in jail or prison where I couldn’t take care of my dog.

“Even though my life was in the shitter, I still had her,” he says. “She was my reason, man.”

Update, 3:10 p.m.: CHP spokesman Officer Tony Tam says state troopers were accompanying Department of Public Works and Caltrans employees on Dec. 7 on a survey of the area when “three dogs approached the group in an aggressive manner.” The officer, Tam says, “tried to get them away, but they wouldn’t obey his commands. He felt they threatened his safety as well as that of the civilians.”

The officer fired three shots and all three dogs ran away. “One of the civilians said if [the CHP officer] hadn’t acted, they’d have probably been attacked,” says Tam. “We’ll never know.”