Edmund H. Mahony
A jury in federal court awarded $202,000 in damages Friday to a father and daughter whose pet dog was shot by Hartford police searching for a cache of gang guns during a rushed search later determined to have been illegal because the officers had not stopped to obtain a warrant.
The 10-year-old case continues to generate strong feelings on both sides. The police said a hunt for guns during a spike in gun violence was in the public interest and that the dog was attacking an officer. Glen Harris, whose fenced-in yard on Enfield Street was cursorily searched, thinks two officers acted recklessly by entering his property and killing one of the normally mild-mannered family pets, a 115-pound St. Bernard.
Late Friday, it seemed as if the verdict would not end the decade of legal disputes associated with the case. There were also questions about whether it would cause officers to hesitate while making decisions in fast-breaking situations involving public safety.
The city of Hartford, a defendant in the suit, has said in court that it will not pay anything because it is not obligated to indemnify officers implicated in an illegal search. Some observers say they believe the city was bluffing in an effort to lower the price of a negotiated, pretrial settlement.
Regardless, Harris family lawyer Jon Schoenhorn said the two officers involved – Sgts. Johnmichael O’Hare and Anthony Pia – are personally obligated to split $32,000 in punitive damages the jury awarded Harris and his daughter.
Last month, a federal magistrate, in anticipation of a verdict for Harris and his daughter, placed a $750,000 attachment on O’Hare’s property and $650,000 on that of Pia.
Schoenhorn said he will be billing the city for as much as $140,000 for the cost of bringing the suit and another $500,000 or so to cover his fee for a decade of legal work that involved two trials and a successful appeal to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.
Harris said he is not entirely satisfied with the verdict.
“To some degree,” he said. “I’m happy that the jury sided with us. Do I think they (the police) will never do it again? I don’t think that’s the case.”
“I think this verdict will act as a deterrent and it will send a message,” he said.
The police officers, their department superiors, a police union spokesman and Hartford officials were not immediately available Friday night. Thomas Gerarde, the lawyer representing the officers and the city, has declined to discuss the case and said in court, after the verdict had been returned, that he may move to retry it.
The case provided a stark look back at a time when the city was threatened with being overwhelmed by a spike in violence caused by warring drug gangs on the north side. The police department had created a new unit to defuse the problem, and officers were under pressure to find and seize illegal caches of weapons.
On Dec. 20, 2006, the gun crackdown ended up at Harris’ home at 297 Enfield St. That morning, O’Hare had been involved in a high-speed pursuit of a suspected stolen car that culminated in a frantic foot chase, over fences and across backyards, in pursuit of the driver.
O’Hare caught the driver, but not before being injured in the chase. He was ordered by a supervisor to report to a hospital for treatment. En route to the hospital, Gerarde said O’Hare and Pia were diverted to Harris’ home.
Another officer had just arrested a gang member who was found to possess dozens of bags of heroin. The gang member wanted to make a deal. If the police helped him get a break with the prosecutors, he would direct them to two guns that he said were hidden in an abandoned car in Harris’ fenced-in property.
Gerarde said O’Hare and Pia raced to 297 Enfield. They walked inside the fence, found no abandoned car and prepared to leave. He said they did not know that, on the other side of the house, Harris’ daughter, identified in court as K, had just returned home from school and had let one of her two St. Bernards out the back door.
K testified that the dog, named Seven and her favorite, suddenly looked up and tore away toward the front of the house.
At the front of the house, Gerarde said, O’Hare and Pia spotted a big dog charging and broke into a “full sprint” to get away. He said O’Hare heard the dog growling and snapping at his heels and turned to command it to stop. When the dog didn’t, Gerarde said, O’Hare shot twice.
K, in the meantime, said she was running toward the front yard on the other side of the house when she heard the two shots. When she got there, she testified that she saw the dog lying on its side and and yelled, “No. Don’t shoot.”
She said O’Hare shot the dog a third time, in the head, then turned to her and said, “I’m sorry, Miss, your dog is not going to make it.”
Harris has been pressing his suit since 2008. In a first trial, in 2012, U.S. District Judge Robert N. Chatigny ruled that the police did not need a warrant to enter Harris’ yard because they were acting in the public interest, literally racing to find guns before gang members could move them. A jury at the first trial ruled in favor of O’Hare and Pia.
Two years later, an appeals court reversed the verdict, concluding that the officers should have obtained a warrant before entering Harris’ property because there were no exigent, or emergency, circumstances.
The verdict Friday followed emotional testimony about how the shooting of the dog traumatized K. She, and others, testified that she has become an emotional wreck and that, as a result of the shooting, she had suicidal impulses and was briefly institutionalized.
Gerarde produced documents and elicited testimony suggesting that K had a difficult childhood and showed suicidal impulses that predated the dog’s death.