Attorneys are demanding changes in a Maryland police department after filing a federal lawsuit on behalf of four roommates claiming police officers illegally entered their apartment without a warrant and unnecessarily shot their dog, which was paralyzed and later euthanized.
The lawsuit filed Monday against Prince George’s County and three Prince George’s County police officers is seeking at least $16 million over the June 2021 incident, which the lawsuit claims follows a decadeslong pattern of misconduct.
"We'll keep filing these suits until police in Prince George's County are reformed such that they don't do these kinds of things anymore and are properly trained to deal with and interact with the public by respecting their constitutional rights and being kind, rather than brutal as they were here," an attorney for the roommates, William “Billy” Murphy Jr., told USA TODAY.
Why did Maryland police officers shoot a dog?
Officers were responding to a report of a dog bite at the apartment complex where Erica Umana, Erika Erazo Sanchez, Dayri Amaya Benitez and Brandon Cuevas lived, according to the suit. Graphic body camera footage released by the roommate's attorneys shows when the officers received no response at the the door, they obtained a master key from maintenance and entered the apartment. Another attorney for the roommates, Malcolm Ruff, told USA TODAY that was a "critical moment" in the incident.
"Everything they did after that was illegal," he said.
From inside their bedroom, Benitez and Cuevas asked if the officers had a warrant, and one replied they did not need one because they had "probable cause," according to the suit and the footage. Benitez came out of the bedroom with her hands up, and officers attempted to handcuff her, the suit said.
Court documents said Umana and Sanchez then entered the apartment, and an officer slammed Umana to the ground. Amid the confrontation, Cuevas and Umana's dog, a boxer mix named Hennessey, left the bedroom, the suit said.
According to the suit, the dog was approaching Umana when the officers panicked and shot the animal with their guns and a stun gun. The officers then handcuffed the roommates and put them in police vehicles for about an hour, the suit said.
"It was a nightmare," Sanchez said at a press conference Monday. "I held Henny's body, bloody body, while she was dying in my arms, while the rest of our family was wrongfully detained and denied ability to check on her."
The dog was taken to an animal hospital and euthanized because it was permanently paralyzed, according to the lawsuit. The county offered to pay for the animal's medical bills if Umana did not speak publicly about the incident, the suit claims, but she declined the offer. Allyson Wilson, a spokesperson for Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, declined to comment on active litigation.
Ruff said the roommates have suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety as a result of the encounter with police.
"They are still devastated by the loss of their dog, but more than that, they're also devastated by the way they were treated," Ruff said.
What happened to the officers?
The Prince George's County Police Department did not immediately respond to questions about the incident from USA TODAY. But the Washington Post reported that after an internal affairs investigation, one officer was found guilty of an internal charge of "conduct unbecoming of an officer" and was disciplined. Another was found guilty of a body-camera violation and was suspended for two weeks with pay before returning to his full duties, the outlet reported. The third officer's case is still pending, according to the Post.
The state's attorney for Prince George's County declined to prosecute the officers involved.
"After reviewing all of the evidence in this matter a determination was made that actions of the officers didn’t generate criminal liability because they were acting in good faith," the office said in a statement to USA TODAY.
Shooting is part of a decadeslong pattern, suit claims
Ruff said he and Murphy believe the officers acted the way they did because the department has condoned misconduct for decades. The lawsuit claims the department has failed to discipline instances of excessive force, unlawful search and seizures and police misconduct stretching back to the 1960s, citing dozens of incidents and other lawsuits.
Ruff and Murphy, who represented the family of Freddie Gray after his 2015 death in police custody in Baltimore, said they have filed at least three civil rights lawsuits in state and federal court in the past three years related to similar misconduct.
“This lawsuit is yet another tragically foreseeable outcome of a failed and biased system of policing in Prince George’s County, to which County leadership has continually turned a blind eye,” the suit said.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police in Maryland face $16 million lawsuit after officers shoot dog