“That’s what happens when you don’t answer questions,” a Prince George’s County police officer said as Erica Umana’s dog lay on the ground, paralyzed and bleeding out.”
Minutes earlier, on a summer day in 2021, officers had shot Umana’s dog, a boxer mix named Hennessy, during a chaotic confrontation inside Umana’s apartment.
Now Umana and her roommates—Erika Sanchez, Dayri Benitez, and Brandon Cuevas—have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Prince George’s County Police Department and several of its officers, saying the police had no right to enter their apartment, shoot their dog, and detain them. The lawsuit seeks over $16 million for allegedly subjecting them to excessive force, unlawful search and seizure, and false arrest.
“This case is an outrage. It is disgusting, disgraceful, and despicable,” William Murphy, an attorney representing the roommates, said in a press release Monday. “These officers outright abused and mistreated our clients, lied to unlawfully break into their house, manhandled them illegally, and shot their dog. And in utter disregard for the severity of their intolerable behavior, they laughed about it.”
The incident began on June 2, 2021, when Prince George’s County police officers arrived at an apartment complex in Landover Hills in response to a 911 call from a woman claiming two dogs had allegedly jumped on her and bit her.
Prince George’s County Cpl. Jason Ball encountered Sanchez sitting outside of the apartments, but she refused to answer any questions. Ball then threatened to arrest Sanchez for trespassing if she didn’t leave. On body camera footage, Ball said into his radio that he believed Sanchez lived in the apartment complex but that he was about to arrest her anyway because she refused to answer his questions—the first of several retaliatory threats and comments from Ball.
Sanchez walked off, and Ball and his partner went to knock on the door of the apartment where Sanchez, Umana, and the other lawsuit plaintiffs lived. No one answered.
“This would be open by now, by the way, if it wasn’t…,” Ball said to his partner, trailing off and tapping his body camera. “I used to open them all the time.”
“Times have changed,” Ball’s partner responded.
Instead, the officers got a master key from a maintenance worker and returned to open the door—illegally, the lawsuit alleges. The officers were also violating department policy, the lawsuit says. As The
Washington Post detailed in a 2021 story on the shooting:
Inside the apartment, Benitez emerged from her bedroom, shouting that the officers had no probable cause to be there. Meanwhile, Sanchez and Umana returned when they realized police were entering their apartment. However, officers blocked them from coming in. When the two women pushed their way past, the police tackled, restrained, and threatened to tase the women.
It was at this point that Hennessy slipped out of the bedroom and ran toward Umana. “Get the dog, get the dog!” one of the officers shouts. Within seconds, two officers shot the dog from behind while a third tased it.
Umana ran to the dog’s side, despite officers threatening to tase her if she did not step away from it.
“I was just begging them, begging them,” Umana told The Washington Post in 2021. “They just had no remorse.”
Benitez called 911, complaining that officers had stormed into her apartment without a warrant.
It was during this bloody aftermath, as Umana cradled her wounded pet in her arms, that Ball said, “That’s what happens when you don’t answer questions.”
The lawsuit claims the roommates were detained for an hour in the back of a police van before being released without being charged. Umana traveled to an animal hospital where Hennessy was being treated. The dog was alive, but permanently paralyzed. Umana chose to have it euthanized. She received an $800 bill.
According to the lawsuit, the county offered to pay the veterinary bill, but only if Umana agreed not to speak out about the shooting or sue the police department. She declined the offer.
At a press conference announcing the lawsuit on Monday, attorneys for the roommates were joined by representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, the NAACP Maryland State Conference, and several other local activist groups, who all said that the incident was part of a long history of civil rights violations by the police department.
“Without a badge, these officers would be trespassers. Without a badge these officers would be called burglars. Without a badge, these officers would be called assailants,” the Maryland NAACP’s NaShona Kess said at the press conference. “With a badge and without a warrant they are trespassers. With a badge and without a warrant they are burglars and assailants.”
After an internal affairs investigation, Ball and Officer Joseph Mihanda were found guilty of violating administrative charges of “conduct unbecoming an officer.” The department referred the case to the local state attorney’s office for possible criminal prosecution, but the office declined to prosecute.
“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 told The Washington Post.
Officers are rarely disciplined for shooting dogs; supervisors almost always find that shootings are justified by departments’ loose policies, which usually only require that an officer feel threatened by a dog to deploy deadly force. For example, a Reason investigation into a string of dog shootings by Detroit police discovered one officer who had killed more than 80 dogs over the course of his career. In fact, there’s a whole category on Reason‘s website called “puppycide” documenting cases of police wantonly shooting dogs—shooting toy breeds including a vicious Pomeranian, shooting dogs at children’s birthday parties, dumping dead pets in ditches and trash cans, and more.
The Prince George’s County Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.