OP-ED | Hartford Won’t Indemnify Cops in Killing of Child’s Dog; Officers’ Personal Assets Attached
This is the haunting voice of trauma inflicted on a 12-year-old girl:
“That day never goes away. It’s like I can’t really escape it, no matter how hard I try. I should have done something — anything — to stop that bullet from hitting him in the head.”
And here is some police scanner chatter about the shooting:
“Have you got anybody hit?
“Negative, negative, just a dog.
“We’re all set, shut down the lights. I don’t want a scene here at the, uh, neighborhood.”
The shooting occurred after school on Dec. 20, 2006, on Enfield Street in Hartford’s North End. The girl, known as K. Harris, suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and became suicidal.
The U.S. Second Circuit of Appeals ruled two years ago that the cops were trespassing and ordered a trial just to determine damages. The Second Circuit ruling overturned a 2012 verdict by an all-suburban jury in Hartford U.S. District Court supporting the warrantless search by police.
The appeals court also opened the door to both compensatory and punitive damages.
Now — as a trial on the amount to award the plaintiffs is scheduled to begin Monday — the city is trying to weasel out of its obligation and in the process throwing the cops it promised to indemnify under the bus.
The Associated Press reported over the weekend that the city of Hartford had reversed its position to indemnify the officers found at fault by the appeals court. Hartford Police Union President Richard Holton told the AP that officers Johnmichael O’Hare and Anthony Pia had been “hung out to dry.”
Friday afternoon, U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Martinez ordered the officers’ personal assets attached in the amount of $1.4 million — O’Hare at $750,000 and Pia at $650,000.
In a documentary which premiered this summer at the Toronto Film Festival, K. Harris recalls letting her dog — a St. Bernard named Seven — outside after school and then hearing a commotion in her front yard.
“There was a police officer standing over Seven with a gun pointed at Seven. I yelled at him, please, no, don’t shoot my dog!
“He looked at me dead in my eyes for like a second and then he took a step and then he shot Seven in the head. The police officer was like, ‘I’m sorry, Ma’am, your dog isn’t going to make it.’
“My life ended right there.”
Because the officers lacked a warrant or probable cause to invade the Harris property, they violated the family’s Fourth Amendment rights. Basically, they claimed falsely that there were exigent circumstances because Hartford is a dangerous place with a lot of guns. Police claimed they were acting on a vague tip about guns hidden in a car behind a house on the street. There were no guns at the Harris home, nor was there a car behind the house.
“The officers did not go up to the front door to knock and explain their presence, nor did they look to the front door, or notice the ‘Beware of Dog’ sign,” Judge Rosemary Pooler wrote for the Second Circuit. “[This] argument would permit exigent circumstances any time there is a tip about illegal guns being located somewhere in a high-crime neighborhood or city, and would allow the exception to swallow the rule.”
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is supposed to guarantee that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
After the shooting, cops would not allow the father onto his property. When he finally got to see his daughter, she was crying, sobbing, incoherent. The dog had been shot and killed right by the front door, inside the fenced-in yard.
“There was no reason why this dog needed to be killed,” attorney Jon Schoenhorn told Brooklyn, NY-based documentary filmmaker Andrea B. Scott in the film, “Just a Dog.”
“Sometimes police need to understand they are subject to the Fourth Amendment,” Schoenhorn continued. “If you have a fenced-in yard it’s the same as if you go into someone’s living room.”
The damage to the public trust and the psyche of this young woman, now 22, might be irrevocable.
“Every child has some type of spark that just makes them unique, whatever it is that turns their light on inside of them,” Glen Harris told Scott. “When Seven died she lost that spark. She was just a shell of a person, nobody home, she was empty inside.”
K. Harris spoke at length with Scott, articulating the fear and disdain of police resulting from the tragedy: “If you are where I am, they don’t care who you are. They’re not here to help you . . . “The system fails black people all the time. I’d rather die than call 911. That’s how I feel about the police. I have no trust for them. I have no respect for them.”
In a deposition, O’Hare claimed the dog “rushed in rage right at us” and made “a low growl, like a dog would do when it was about to attack.” He said he saw the girl after the shots were fired and said nothing to her, according to a report by WTNH Channel 8.
Scott reported in her documentary that nearly 25 dogs are killed by law enforcement every day in the United States.
Filmmaker Scott told me she wasn’t surprised by the city’s tactics.
“It’s very upsetting that it’s taken so long to have some semblance of justice for the Harris family,” Scott said. “For Glen [Harris, the father], it’s not about the money. He is so inspiring. He’s a father seeking justice for his daughter. He’s a rare role model.”
This legal chicanery implemented by the city of Hartford fits my definition of obscenity. How long will Mayor Luke Bronin let the city legal and police departments continue to flush public trust down the toilet? The time has long passed for the city of Hartford and its police department to apologize to the Harris family and seek forgiveness.
Andy Thibault, a private investigator and a journalist, is the author of an award-winning collection of newspaper columns, “more COOL JUSTICE.” He will read from his work Thursday, Sept. 22 at 6:30 p.m. at the Sprague Public Library. Readers can follow him on Twitter @cooljustice.
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