By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 6:54 PM
The way Prince George's County police officers saw it, they were rolling up on a dangerous crime scene. Neighbors had told 911 dispatchers that they had heard gunfire on Fuji Avenue in Landover, and now an armed man was roaming the streets. Officers had no choice, police would later say, but to approach the people they saw in the street and order them to lie on the ground.
But that stance made for a charged atmosphere, neighbors said, pitting residents who saw themselves as bystanders, witnesses and even victims, against the police. And that set in motion a sequence of events that would lead to officers confronting one man, then fatally shooting his dog.
The trouble began just after 1 a.m. Wednesday, when someone called 911 to report a possibly armed man in the 1100 block of Fuji Street in Landover, police said. Officers arrived to find six people in the street and ordered them to the ground, police said.
The official police account is this: Five of the people eventually complied, but a sixth man resisted. Officers engaged him in a physical struggle. During the struggle, his family dog, a Rottweiler-Labrador mix named Mercedes, became agitated and charged the officers. Cpl. Rayshawn Robinson, a 10-year-veteran officer, fired one shot, striking the dog in the head and killing it.
"It was not the officer's intent to hurt the dog, but the officer had to stop the potential attack on the officers," said Maj. Andrew Ellis, a Prince George's police spokesman. "It was in reaction to the threat."
Police later arrested and charged the man who they claim struggled - Sterling E. Barlow, 24, of Landover - with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. He was released on $5,000 bond.
Several witnesses, including the dog's owners and some in the group forced to the ground, offered a somewhat different account. While five of the men got on the ground immediately, Barlow did not simply because he had an injured leg, witnesses said. They said he told officers that, but they forced him to the ground anyway. One officer, witnesses said, punched him in the head.
Even then, witnesses said, Mercedes did not act aggressively. She might have barked, they said, but she was certainly not charging officers when she was shot.
"It never growled. It never lunged at anybody," said Barbara Wells, 56, a neighbor. "The lady just went and shot it anyway."
Witnesses also blamed police for escalating what they perceived as a situation that was not dangerous. They said the officers swore at the men in the street and refused to listen when they tried to explain what had happened: Sterling Barlow's brother, 21-year-old Micah Barlow, had exchanged gunfire with two men who took his car keys from him at gunpoint in his own driveway.
"They basically treated us like we were the criminals," said Micah Barlow, who said officers took him to a police station for questioning but released him without charging him. He added that police seemed uninterested in what he had to say about the attempted carjacking.
Ellis, the police spokesman, said officers who were racing to the call knew only of a man with a gun shooting in the roadway, though they do believe the attempted carjacking to be genuine. He said the incident will be investigated thoroughly, including a probe by a board that normally examines police shootings of humans.
"Our heartfelt sympathy does go out to the family. We know that dogs can become like members of the family, and many of us in the police department are dog owners as well," he said. "Shooting a dog is not something that we want to do."