A federal lawsuit filed last week says Detroit police officers serving a drug warrant gratuitously shot three dogs that were not threatening them in any way, including one that was confined in a bathroom, which they shot through the door. The lawsuit, first reported by the New York Daily News, says the cops "acted as [a] dog death squad and stormed through the house, executing Plaintiffs' dogs as they went."
In their complaint, Nikita Smith and Kevin Thomas, who share a house on Sussex Street, say "a large number" of cops arrived there about 12:30 p.m. on January 14, demanding entry. Smith, who was home alone at the time, called out, "Let me put my dogs down in the basement." She put her two pit bulls, a male named Debo and a pregnant female named Mama, in the basement and blocked the door leading from it. She put the third dog, a female Rottweiler named Smoke, in a bathroom and closed the door.
After police "entered the residence without permission," Debo managed to get past the barrier across the doorway to the basement and sat down next to Smith. As she reached out to him, police opened fire and shot him several times, even though Smith was nearby. "You could have been killed," one officer later said, according to the lawsuit. After killing Debo, the cops then went down into the basement and shot Mama, who "was not barking or attacking the police at any time."
Next an officer opened the bathroom door, saw Smoke, and closed the door. "Should we do that one, too?" a cop asked. "Yes," another answered. Two cops "then fired multiple shots through the closed bathroom door, which killed Smoke." One of them reportedly exclaimed, "Did you see that? I got that one good!" The evidence introduced by Smith and Thomas includes pictures of the bloody aftermath and bullet holes in the bathroom door.
According to The Detroit News, a police report obtained by Chris Olson, the lawyer representing Smith and Thomas, claims the dogs were aggressive. The report says one officer "encountered a vicious gray pit bull at the front door, at which time he fired his department issued shotgun, striking the dog." But the lawsuit says "none of Plaintiffs' dogs attacked or threatened [any] Defendant in any way," and it is hard to see how a dog shut in a bathroom could have posed an imminent threat. Photography Is Not a Crime reports that "police claimed they had no audio or video of the incident."
The version of events described in the lawsuit is sadly plausible, given the past behavior of cops confronting dogs in Detroit and elsewhere. A month after police killed Debo, Mama, and Smoke, the Detroit City Council approved a $100,000 settlement with the owner of a chained Dogue de Bordeaux shot by police looking for a suspect who was not there. In that case the officer who killed the dog also claimed it posed a threat, saying "a brown dog charged towards me, attempting to bite me." But according to the owner's lawsuit, dashcam video of the incident shows the officer "walk towards Babycakes in her driveway to a position just beyond the reach of Babycakes' steel cable leash, pause, aim and shoot her twice with his department issued M&P 40 caliber handgun."
After the settlement, Olson, who also represented the dog owner in that case, expressed the hope that "police officers in Detroit will hear this story and be much more mindful of the magnitude of the rights that are involved here." The unnecessary killing of a dog can qualify as an unconsitutional seizure of property under the Fourth Amendment. Olson cites a 2005 decision in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that "defendant police's shooting of plaintiff's dogs was an unreasonable seizure in particular where defendant police officers had notice of the dog's presence and were not surprised by them and had no plan to deal with the dog other than by shooting it."
Smith says one of the officers who raided her home told her, "I should have killed you, too." Olson told The Daily News "she's terrified," since "those same cops drive through her neighborhood every day." Smith was initially charged with marijuana possession, but the case was dismissed after the cops failed to appear in court.
"They had a warrant to search the house," Olson said. "That we don't really quarrel with. But when you search the house, you can't go in the house and kill all the dogs."
Since the justification for the search was something (drug possession) that shouldn't be treated as a crime, and the resulting charge was so trivial that the cops could not be bothered to show up in court, we really should quarrel with the idea that police had a right to be in the house. Every confrontation prompted by the morally atrocious war on drugs is an invitation to violence, and all too frequently it's human blood that ends up on the floor.