In cities coast to coast police report that vicious pit bulls are becoming the weapon of choice among drug dealers because the dogs are legal to own, more terrorizing than guns and better at delaying police.
From New York to California, officers say pit bulls are being used to guard so-called 'rock houses' where drugs are manufactured and stashed.
In Oakland, Calif., police officer Christine Haddad said pit bulls were becoming prevalent in the high-crime ghetto neighborhoods.
'I would estimate that every third or fourth house, there's a pit bull,' she said. 'The pit bull is becoming more and more associated with drug dealers all the time. They're better than guns because you don't get arrested for having a pit bull.'
In New York, drug dealers also are using pit bulls to guard crack houses, according to Madeline Bernstein, a spokeswoman for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
'If police have to stop when four pit bulls are there on a raid, that's when the toilet starts flushing,' she said. 'Drug dealers are also using them for protection because they hold up each other constantly.'
Los Angeles police detective Bill Leader said pit bulls have the added attraction of giving early warning of approach of strangers.
'If you're a dealer sitting inside your house with your Uzis and automatic weapons, you won't know the police are there until they knock on the door,' he said. 'A pit bull will give you warning.
Specially bred pit bulls can be the most dangerous dog in the canine world. Their jaws can exert twice the power of either German shepherds or Doberman pinschers. Unlike most dogs, when a pit bull has a victim in its jaws it will violently shake its head, causing rips and tears, rather than just hold its prey in its grip.
Pit bulls also can be bred to fight to the kill, rather than quit when its opponent has surrendered. In one publicized case, a child under attack tried to play dead, but the dog continued attacking, twice biting through the victim's spine.
In defense of the breed, Karin Maida of Manassas, Va., who helped train president Reagan's dog, Lucky, said that in her experience American pit bull terriers have not been aggressive toward people.
Although pit bull terriers were 'bred to bite and not let go, and they give no warning,' their behavior depends more on their masters, she said.
Over the past several weeks there have been many reports of pit bulls attacking, maiming and killing people, mostly children. In many cases owners have said the attacks were accidental, but in a growing number of instances the dogs have been sicked on victims with only the slightest provocation.
Police in major cities report that ghetto youths often keep pit bulls as status symbols. In a recent Washington case, a 16-year-old boy sicked his dog onto an 11-year-old just because the younger boy had discovered the dog's hiding place.
In a recent Los Angeles case, an animal control officer was attacked by a pit bull as she arrived at a house to investigate the dog's earlier attack on a child. The dog had to be beaten off the woman officer by a television crew that was covering the story.
Part of the problem in dealing with pit bulls is the difficulty in drafting an effective law against them.
In Chicago, the City Council is considering forcing pit bull owners to license and tattoo the dogs on the upper lip and require owners to carry up to $100,000 in public liability insurance.
The ordinance's sponsor, Alderman Lawrence Bloom, said a key problem is that 'current laws fail to define the term 'vicious animal.''
In some states, however, the courts have taken decisive action.
Last November three pit bulls in Decatur, Ga., mauled a 4-year-old boy to death. The owner of those dogs was sentenced to five years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. The dogs were put to death.
The owner, Hayward Turnipseed, was sentenced because the court considered him negligent in his failure to restrain the animals.
Officials in most states, however, including Georgia, said it would be difficult to pass laws specifically against pit bulls. They said it would be almost impossible to outlaw any specific breed, especially since the degree of viciousness of the dog depends largely on how it is trained.
Maida, the Virginia dog trainer, agreed: 'My guess is that it has to do more with dog ownership than breed.'