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Denver Mayor Michael Hancock on Feb. 14, 2020. 

The decision didn’t come easily, but Denver Mayor Hancock announced on Friday that he will veto Denver City Council’s bill that would allow pit bulls to call Denver home. 

Following Denver City Council’s 7-4 vote on Monday to lift the city’s ban on pit bulls, Hancock spent four full days on the fence weighing whether to sign or veto the bill.

“Here’s the reality: Irresponsible pet owners continue to be a problem, and it is the irresponsible owners and their dogs I must consider in evaluating the overall impact of this ordinance,” he said during a Friday evening press conference. “I cannot diminish nor dismiss the very real, traumatic experiences of people who contacted me and are part of the overall record of attacks by these dogs.”

Hancock pointed not only to the fact that less than 20% of dogs in Denver are currently registered, but also that many owners fail to keep their dogs on a leash, which he said “raises significant questions about the effectiveness of this proposed new system.”

Friday’s decision marked the first time the mayor had ever vetoed a bill, something he said he felt “hopeful” he would never have to do in his three-term tenure.

“I’m disappointed the mayor is choosing to disregard the science on the issue of breed-specific legislation," Councilman Chris Herndon, who introduced the bill, said in a statement. "Research tells us breed-specific legislation is ineffective at keeping communities safe and experts in the field — from the local level to the national level — agree it is no longer best practice.

"I hope my colleagues on Council will support an evidence-based approach to our animal ordinance, rather than one steeped in fear and stereotypes. The community has demonstrated significant support for this proposal and should it not pass on Tuesday, I look forward to working on a measure for the November ballot.”

When asked whether he’d support the issue appearing on the November ballot, Hancock said the city will “cross that bridge when we get to it, adding, “if it goes to the voters, it goes to the voters.”

Now that Hancock has vetoed the legislation, it will be punted back to City Council. The body will need a super majority, or nine votes, to pass the bill and override the mayor’s decision. The council is expected to revote on the issue on Tuesday, but likely does not have the votes to pass it. 

The legislation applies to three breeds that fall under the city's pit bull label: American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

If passed, the law would not repeal the breed-specific legislation entirely, but instead requires a breed-restricted license that pit bull owners would have to obtain to come into compliance with the revised city ordinance.

No more than two pit bulls would be allowed per household, and owners would be required to call Denver Animal Protection within eight hours of a bite or escape, and within 24 hours of the dog dying or the owner moving.

Pit bull owners would also be required to spay or neuter their pets to obtain the license.

A fee for the license has yet to be determined, but Denver Animal Protection estimates it would be between $30 and $50.

During the City Council meeting on Monday night, opponents of the bill, many of whom were longtime Montbello residents, claimed pit bulls are dangerous by nature and pointed to the prevalence of attacks across the country. Those in support, including animal rights advocates, argued the ban is ineffective, inequitable and data-deprived. 

Several of the latter reasons drove council members Kendra Black, Jolon Clark, Chris Hinds, Robin Kniech, Amanda Sandoval and Jamie Torres to vote in favor of Herndon’s proposal. 

The other members — Kevin Flynn, Paul Kashmann, Debbie Ortega and Amanda Sawyer — couldn’t bring themselves to back the bill. 

Their concerns, fueled by a lack of community consensus, revolved around safety, compliance and enforcement. Many pet owners in the city already struggle to comply with basic rules, like leash laws, they said. More regulations could only complicate the issue.  

Denver Parks and Recreation estimates that the city’s dog population is about 158,000. At the start of 2020, only 28,000 of them — or about 18% — were licensed, according to Denver Animal Protection.

“I just don’t know how I could look myself in the mirror if someone were to get killed by a pit bull again,” Sawyer told Colorado Politics in advance of the Monday night vote.

Councilwomen Candi CdeBaca and Stacie Gilmore were absent on Monday, although the latter — who represents Montbello — made clear in an earlier meeting that she was against Herndon’s proposal.

Over the past four years, Denver Animal Protection has received about 2,200 calls about suspected pit bulls, agency spokesman Josh Rolfe said. About half of the calls come from three zip codes — 80219, 80239 and 80204 — and are often in low-income neighborhoods.

About 70% of those calls are “unfounded,” Rolfe said, and only 17% of those calls involve dogs that are found to be illegal under the city’s ordinance.

“Our community is not safer with this breed-specific legislation,” Herndon said on Monday.

“We know these dogs are in our community, … but where are they? We don’t know. If this measure passes, we know they’re vaccinated, we know they’re spayed and neutered, and studies will tell you spays and neuters lower the probability of something that can happen."

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