A Prince George's County Circuit Court judge ruled yesterday that a civil trial involving a police dog attack on a Capitol Heights man needn't be moved to another county despite publicity surrounding allegations of excessive force by members of the police canine unit.
Judge William B. Spellbring Jr. rejected arguments by Assistant County Attorney Laura J. Gwinn that the publicity from news articles and broadcasts would make it impossible for the officer who is being sued to get a fair trial. Spellbring's ruling means the case, in which Julius LaRosa Booker, 34, is suing Cpl. Anthony Mileo, is scheduled to begin in Prince George's Circuit Court on July 26.
Booker was bitten numerous times in the early morning of Oct. 21, 1997, when he was caught by the police dog after running from a stolen car that officers had surrounded. The police dog ripped off a large chunk of Booker's lower right leg. Booker's attorneys said some witnesses estimated the dog chewed on Booker for as long as 10 minutes.
Mileo asserts that Booker fought the dog and tried to choke it. Booker was charged with stealing a van, resisting arrest, beating a canine and other offenses. All of the charges were dropped.
The case is one of at least 13 lawsuits pending against members of the county police department's canine unit alleging excessive force. Mileo is named in two of the suits, including the Booker case.
In addition, the FBI is conducting two investigations involving the 23-officer canine unit: a civil probe into whether the canine team has engaged in a pattern of brutality, and a criminal civil rights investigation of an incident last month in which an unarmed robbery suspect was seriously injured by a police dog at the end of a slow-speed police chase.
While defense lawyers in highly publicized criminal cases sometimes seek a change of venue to ensure a fair trial, it is unusual for a government attorney to seek such a move in a civil case.
In court papers, Gwinn cited reports in The Washington Post and other publications, as well as news broadcasts, about the lawsuits and the FBI probe of the canine unit. She also cited weekly protests at the Upper Marlboro courthouse calling for a reinvestigation of the fatal 1993 police shooting of a black motorist and recent news stories about police brutality in New York and Los Angeles.
In May, about six weeks after The Post first reported the pending lawsuits and the FBI investigation of the canine unit, County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) and Police Chief John S. Farrell announced sweeping changes in training and deployment of police dogs and canine officers.
Curry and Farrell said the changes, which police are making this summer, are designed to reduce the number and severity of injuries caused by the dogs. One of the key changes: Instead of training dogs to capture suspects by biting them, officers will train the dogs to hold suspects at bay by barking loudly, biting only if the suspect flees or attacks.
This "guard and bark" approach is used by dozens of police agencies in the western United States.
Booker's attorneys, Terrell N. Roberts III and Christopher Griffiths, planned to use VanNess H. Bogardus III, a former Los Angeles County sheriff's canine sergeant and a proponent of the guard and bark method Prince George's is adopting, as an expert witness.
Gwinn argued that Bogardus should be barred from testifying because he said in a sworn deposition that he considers the use of police dogs to be "deadly force," contrary to court opinions and policy statements by police departments nationwide.
Griffiths argued that Bogardus would not testify about whether the use of dogs constitutes deadly force, only that Mileo's use of his dog was improper. Spellbring agreed with Gwinn and ruled that Booker's attorneys could not call Bogardus to testify.
"It's ironic that the county would move to exclude an expert who is a proponent of a theory county police say they are adopting," Griffiths said after the hearing. "It makes one wonder if the county is serious about changing its policy" to guard and bark.