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Environmental Police overreacted by killing bear in Newton

The state Environmental Police, like any law enforcement agency, has an obligation to maintain public safety. But it is far from obvious that its decision Sunday to shoot and kill a small black bear in Newton served such a purpose.

The juvenile bear, which weighed about 120 pounds, had taken refuge up a tree adjacent to Washington Street near the Massachusetts Turnpike. Environmental police officers attempted to shoot the bear with a tranquilizer dart, which would have made it possible to capture and relocate the animal. That’s standard procedure. But the tranquilizer gun misfired, leaving officers with the choice to wait and secure another tranquilizer gun, find another non-lethal solution, or use live ammunition. They chose the most extreme option.

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Environmental Police officers offer a plausible explanation for their decision: They feared the bear could pose a threat to public safety if it got spooked, came down from the tree, and started to run through a densely populated neighborhood or onto a busy roadway. Second-guessing such a decision might be unfair if not for the fact that bear sightings in suburban neighborhoods are increasingly common. And there are a variety of alternatives to deadly force — ranging from hazing by dogs to rubber bullets — that can be used by professionals to deal with the situation, according to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Given a black bear’s normal lack of aggression, simply allowing it to move away of its own accord would also have been an acceptable solution.

Good law enforcement — no matter the jurisdiction — requires the use of the least amount of force to get the job done. And all officers are required to maintain their weapons in good working order at all times. The Environmental Police failed the public — and the state’s wildlife — in these critical areas. The result was a sad and unnecessary death of a blameless creature.

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