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Prince George’s police shoot dogs first; ask questions later

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Bill of Rights. (From the public domain.) 

On July 29, the lives of Cheye Calvo and Trinity Tomsic were turned upside down and inside out. Their dogs fared worse, having been shot dead after Prince George’s County, Maryland police stormed the couple’s home without knocking, immediately shooting dead the apparently gentle-breed dogs.

Prince George’s County is where I started my criminal defense career, with the county Public Defender’s Office in 1991. It is a fascinating county that swallows up the northeast quadrant of the Capital Beltway. It has many wide-open and farmland spaces to the south, urban-type areas closer to the Washington, D.C., border, a very enjoyable new harborside convention center and entertainment complex across the Potomac from Alexandria, great kayaking and canoeing at Piscataway Creek, homes that are much more affordable than the neighboring Montgomery County where I live, apparently the state’s second most active criminal court dockets just after Baltimore’s, and a deep and painful history of racism in this county which today has a majority of African-American residents.

Do police have a tendency to mistreat more heavily those they think are disempowered? Does that help explain why members of the Prince George’s County police stormed the home of the mayor of the tiny city of Berwyn Heights (not knowing he was the mayor, and not believing him when he told them as much), stormed the home without knocking even though their warrant was not of the no-knock variety, shot the couple’s two dogs dead on the spot, and held the mayor in his underwear for two hours during the search?

Did this story come to light with such lightning speed and breadth only because a mayor was involved? Sadly — apart from police entering without knocking on a no-knock warrant — such actions are repeated daily by police who execute search warrants, often terrorizing the occupants with SWAT-team garb and tactics (right down to cuffing the occupants and pointing guns at them), leaving searched homes looking like tornadoes hit them, with drawers and trash cans removed and dumped out, and sometimes destroying front doors by entering with battering rams. So much for the land of the free and home of the brave; such searches require no more than a judge’s signature on a warrant application that usually starts with several hackneyed pages detailing the police applicant’s claimed qualifications for seeking a search warrant, and often followed by sleep-inducing minute details about the events leading up to the warrant application. In Maryland, judges are available twenty-four hours a day to sign such warrants. The quicker they sign the warrant, the sooner they can get back to sleep if it is after hours, and back to their other tasks if it is daylight. Do all judges always read and question such warrant applications as thoroughly as they should?

In this instance, the warrant was issued because of the discovery of a package of over thirty pounds of marijuana destined for the mayor’s home, apparently as part of a scam by drug traffickers to choose innocent people’s addresses for intercepting such packages in order to remove an investigative trail to the real culprits. As of August 8, even though two suspects were caught, the Prince George’s County police still resisted ruling out Mr. Calvo and Ms. Tomsic as suspects.

Of course, if I had my way of marijuana legalization and heavy drug decriminalization, such wasteful and abusive use of police resources would not have taken place. Instead, members of the Prince George’s County police rushed with such fury and force that they did not even bother to alert Berwyn Heights’s own small police force of its pending search. On the one hand, no mayor or other government official should get more favorable police treatment than anybody else. On the other hand, dollars to donuts, the Prince George’s police heads will now require more careful investigation of the backgrounds of those whose homes they search, and might even require alerting the local police in the county’s numerous small and larger cities that have their own police forces.

If there is a silver lining here, it is that such common police tactics have been brought to the light of day, and that a small city’s victim-mayor may become more sensitive to the need for his own police force to be extra careful in protecting not only people’s Constitutional rights, but their dignity as well. Jon Katz.