Sheriff says deputies were justified in shooting mayor's dogs
Police release findings of investigation into Berwyn Heights raid in July 2008
This story was updated June 19, 2009.
Prince George's County Sheriff Michael Jackson said Friday deputies acted "in a professional and acceptable manner" when they shot two dogs inside the home of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo last summer.
During a press conference Friday morning in which Jackson made public selected details from an internal investigation, he said, "The release of today's findings are consistent with what I've felt all along — my deputies did their job to the fullest extent of their abilities."
Calvo has filed complaints that police and deputies needlessly shot the dogs when they raided his house on July 29, 2008, after mistakenly believing that the home was linked to an illegal marijuana shipping racket.
Calvo was later cleared of any involvement in drug activity, and police linked the 32-pound package of marijuana that was listed for delivery at the Calvo home to a Fed-Ex courier and arrested him.
Reached Friday, Calvo said the investigation's conclusion that deputies followed procedure misses the point.
"They're turning what was horrible judgment into a model operation," Calvo said by phone. "That this is the best they can do? That's disturbing."
The raid sparked an outcry in the community and among state leaders, who last winter passed a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to track and report the activities of their SWAT team units, including how often guns are fired and when animals are killed.
National groups have taken up the case as an example of overly aggressive police tactics in the national drug war.
Calvo's lawyers have also filed notice for a potential lawsuit against the county police and sheriff's office, which served the warrant on behalf of the police. A spokesman for Jackson said that Calvo's lawyers could seek up to $5 million.
Although Jackson cleared deputies of wrongdoing in shooting the dogs, he also gave the first public apology by a county official to Calvo, his wife, Trinity Tomsic and his mother-in-law, Georgia Porter, who was also in the house during the raid.
"I am sorry for the impact this has had on Mayor Calvo, Ms. Tomsic and Ms. Porter and for the loss of their family pets," Jackson said. "It is extremely unfortunate that a felonious drug trafficker involved this family in his criminal enterprise."
Jackson said that he had not spoken with Calvo to relay his regrets and declined to release other details from the raid, citing the potential lawsuit.
In the four-page statement Jackson released, based on interviews with the Calvo family and deputies at the scene, the sheriff said deputies had considered less lethal ways to subdue the two pets, including having the owners lock them in a separate room. But Jackson said the squad was forced to enter the home when they were detected from inside.
"It is undisputed that someone in the house yelled SWAT'," Jackson said. "Based on the prior experience and the nature of the crime being investigated, the decision was made to enter the house as quickly as possible. Because immediate entry was deemed necessary, unfortunately the occupants had no opportunity to put the dogs away."
Calvo said deputies may have misinterpreted his mother-in-law's scream when she saw armed men rushing toward the home.
"That gives you a peek into the thinking behind the way these groups operate," he said. "My mother-in-law screams when she sees a paramilitary operation coming for her and that's their reasoning [for entering]? They had concluded that we were drug traffickers and that they were going to take us down."
Jackson declined to say how many shots were fired during the raid but said officers believed the animals were a threat. "They encountered one of the dogs growling, baring its teeth and charging towards a team member," he said.
Suppressing potential animal threats is a standard tactic when officers serve a warrant during a drug investigation. Jackson said the deputies were "in a danger zone" and were following their duties to protect potential evidence and minimize harm.
The actions by the deputies were neither "offensive" nor "unconventional," Jackson said.
Jackson also declined to give information on how many times his office's Specialized Service Team has been used to serve warrants, or how times deputies have shot animals.
Since the incident, Jackson said that police have changed their tactics to deal with dogs and other animals, by consulting with animal control officers before entering and employing non-lethal leashes and other tools to subdue pets. Deputies have also been given extra training in dealing with animals, Jackson said.
The Calvo case is likely to be a political liability for Jackson, who sources say has been raising money for more than two years for a run as county executive in 2010.
Jackson would not confirm Friday whether he plans to seek higher office, or what effect the case may have on potential plans.
"Right now, I'm the sheriff of Prince George's County," he said.
A second internal investigation by the county police into their part in the incident has not been released. Police detectives were responsible for tracing the box of marijuana and delivering it to the Calvo home by an undercover officer, as well as obtaining the search warrant that deputies used.
Police were attending a funeral Friday morning and could not be reached for comment.
E-mail Daniel Valentine at firstname.lastname@example.org.