UPDATED at 11:30 a.m. with official announcement of plans at press conference.
ST. LOUIS • People who abuse animals often go on to commit crimes against people, officials say, which is why the police department is dedicating an officer to investigate animal abuse cases full time.
Officer Louis Naes, a nine-year veteran of the force, has become the department's first animal abuse investigator and a member of the new Animal Abuse Task Force. It includes the circuit attorney's office, mayor's office, the health department and Stray Rescue of St. Louis.
Officials announced the formation of the group today. It comes nine days before Darick Dashon Stallworth, 31, is to be sentenced for torturing, mutilating and killing five dogs in a vacant building earlier this year.
Randy Grim, founder of Stray Rescue, which provides dog rescue and shelter operations for the city, said Stallworth's case — the first felony animal abuse conviction in the city he can remember — provided impetus for more police involvement.
"This is a pivotal moment for police understanding that these are violent crimes that need to be taken seriously," Grim said.
City officials are using about $35,000 from the city's corrections budget to help fund Naes' salary. The extra money comes from a new director's more efficient use of funds, said Kara Bowlin, spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay.
Slay said during a press conference Tuesday that dedicating an officer solely to animal cases will help raise awareness about animal cruelty in St. Louis and allow the courts an opportunity to give extra attention to such cases.
"It is up to all of us to stand up for animals right here and right now," Slay said. "We're sending a message that we will not tolerate people who torture animals."
Naes has spent his first five days on the job meeting with animal advocates and others to determine how they can work together. He said he spent Monday morning with Humane Society executives.
Designating a police officer for animal abuse cases is somewhat rare across the country, and comes at a time when St. Louis police are shifting officers to address a 19 percent increase in aggravated assaults with firearms.
Police Chief Dan Isom said he thinks assigning one officer to animal abuse cases shows intolerance to all forms of violence and is a good use of resources.
"Violence is violence in a community and I think all of it is related," Isom said. "We have 1,301 officers in the police department and we're dedicating one officer to the animal cruelty task force. I don't think that's a stretch."
But some law enforcement officials think it pays off in terms of human — as well as animal — victims.
"There is a direct relationship to animal crimes and domestic violence abusers, who think of their victims as an object," said Officer Kim Lormans of the Los Angeles police, which already has five animal abuse investigators. "They start with the family pet and ... use it as tool to manipulate and control. If that's not stopped and investigated, it will get higher and higher then on to the kids and spouse."
In St. Louis, cases involving neglect or loose dogs are handled in municipal courts. Cruelty is handled in state courts.
Pam Walker, the city's health director, said animal control officers enforce city ordinances, and Grim's group can collect evidence and interview witnesses.
But both hit a brick wall with prosecutors.
They can't take the cases to court because investigators do not have the suspects' dates of birth or Social Security numbers, Walker explained.
As a police officer, Naes has access to that information, along with criminal history and any other arrest warrants pending.
Some criminals arm themselves with dangerous animals, Walker said. So, investigating animal abuse may lead police to someone who has eluded arrest for other crimes.
Naes said he also views his new assignment as an opportunity to educate.
"I not only want to arrest people, but prevent people from making the decision of handling a dog in a way they shouldn't be," he said.
Grim believes Naes will be spending most of his time investigating cases in which dogs have been shot and left to die, which come in weekly, sometimes daily.
"St. Louis can be a very violent city when it comes to being a dog," he said.
In the next few weeks, billboards will be erected in problem areas throughout the city warning: "Wake Up St. Louis: Abuse an animal, lose your freedom."
Naes will be holding the handcuffs.
Joel Currier of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.