Nikita Smith says she never imagined that opening the door to Detroit police would lead to all three of her dogs losing their lives.
But when a group of officers executed a search warrant one afternoon last January at her west-side home, she claims in a federal lawsuit filed this week, they fatally shot each family pet — including a pregnant one who “died in a pool of blood in the corner of the basement.”
“They went around three different locations, found the dogs where they were and killed them like a death squad,” said Chris Olson, the Royal Oak attorney who filed the suit.
Detroit police present a different version of events in documents the lawyer obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Police reports say officers forced their way inside after receiving no response, found aggressive dogs inside and followed department procedure that stipulates they may shoot animals posing a threat.
John Roach, a spokesman for Detroit, said the city does not comment on pending litigation. However, “The Law Department has received the complaint and is reviewing it and will respond appropriately in court,” he wrote in an email.
Smith and her partner, Kevin Thomas, filed the suit after the deaths of their pit bulls, Debo and Mama, and a Rottweiler, Smoke.
The issue stems from “a large number” of city police officers arriving at Smith and Thomas’ residence at about 12:30 p.m. Jan. 14 to execute a search warrant, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court. Wayne County authorities ordered the search warrant to find suspected narcotics.
When the officers knocked, Smith told them “let me put my dogs down in the basement,” the lawsuit alleges. She placed Debo and Mama there and blocked the entryway, then sequestered Smoke in the bathroom with the door closed.
The court filing states that after police entered without permission, Debo pushed past the obstruction and sat next to Smith; when she reached down to him, officers shot the canine “multiple times.”
Three officers then “stormed down into the basement” and shot Mama, the pregnant animal, although she “was not barking or attacking the police at any time,” the document claims.
Then, after an officer learned where Smoke was, Smith asserts two others “fired multiple shots through the closed bathroom door,” killing him.
In an email to The News, Detroit Police Department representatives said they do not comment on pending litigation. “Additionally, civil lawsuits do not bring culpability to an officer’s actions,” an official wrote.
The lawsuit, which lists the city and five officers, claims none of the dogs attacked or threatened police, and the shootings were “objectively unreasonable.”
But in the police report, officials contend officers forced their way inside after no one came to the front door, and one officer “encountered a vicious gray pit bull at the front door, at which time he fired his department issued shotgun, striking the dog.”
The report also described the two other canines as vicious; a supervisor explained that their shootings complied with a directive in the Detroit police manual that says “an officer may shoot a dangerous and/or rabid animal that is posing an imminent threat.”
The same report showed police arrested Smith after recovering marijuana at her house. 36th District Court records reveal she pleaded not guilty to violating the city’s marijuana code and no officer appeared at a recent proceeding, so the case was dismissed.
Olson and his clients reject the police account of the incident.
According to the lawsuit, before Smoke was shot, a police officer reportedly asked: “Should we do that one, too?” Photos of the scene showed the bathroom door pocked with what appeared to be bullet holes.
“When you’re sitting there, shooting a dog through a closed door, what are you doing?” Olson asked. “Who are you protecting?”
The lawsuit claims the officers violated rights under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits the government from unreasonably destroying or seizing a citizen’s property. It also seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
This isn’t the first time Detroit police have been accused of unfairly shooting pets. In February, the City Council approved a $100,000 settlement for a dog owner who sued after a police officer fatally shot “Babycakes,” his female Dogue de Bordeaux – a type of mastiff – last year.
“I think there’s a problem in the city and we’re going to try and address that in the courts,” Olson said.